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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

Do Historic Voting Patterns Forecast 2012 Election?

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There are different ways of looking at the possible electorate, based on past presidential elections. For example, North Carolina’s electorate might be reflective of the composition of registered voters in the state.

So let’s start with the 2004 election, when George W. Bush won the state by 13 percent—and was a continuation of what North Carolina had traditionally voted at the presidential level. As was evident in previous elections, North Carolina was a state where the Republicans won by double-digits over a series of elections, and was classified as “safe” GOP state.

In 2004, the pool of registered voters was 47 percent Democratic to 34 percent Republican and 19 percent unaffiliated. If the 2004 electorate was comparable to the pool of eligible voters, we would expect the electorate to be similar. 

Exit polls provide another source of looking at the electorate’s composition. Exit polls are designed to take a snapshot of those casting ballots and ask them a series of questions in a randomize fashion.  Having worked as an exit pollster, I would ask every 10th voter to fill out a front-and-back sheet, asking them a variety of questions about their vote choices, the issues they confronted, and about themselves.

In the 2004 election, the NC exit poll showed us a slightly different electorate than what the pool of registered voters suggested: 39% of the electorate self-identified themselves as Democrats, with 40% identifying as Republican, and 21% as independent.

One other aspect of what I look at when it comes to exit polls is what percentage of the time did self-identified partisans vote for their party’s candidate? In 2004, 84% of self-identified Democrats voted for their party’s presidential candidate, while 96% of self-identified Republicans for their party’s candidate.

Self-identified “independents” split themselves between the two parties, with Bush garnering 56 percent of independent votes to Kerry’s 41 percent.

So, if we have a general idea of what the electorate might look like, we can estimate that anywhere from 85-95 percent of the time, those who identify with a party will vote for their party’s candidate.

But following the election, the state Board of Elections released a data file that compiled, in different ways, the “history” of those who cast ballots in the state.  And by looking at who cast ballots in 2004, we get a third version of the electorate: 47 percent of the ballots cast were by registered Democrats, 37 percent by registered Republicans, and 16 percent by registered unaffiliated voters.

2004 NC Electorate Comparisons_0.jpg

While the exit poll asks the voter for their information (meaning that a voter could tell a little white lie about which party they belong to), the history file documents who cast ballots (but, because of the secret ballot, we don’t know how each of these voters voted). 

So, in 2004, we get variations in trying to figure out the make-up of the electorate.  But nobody in 2008 thought that North Carolina would break its track record of double-digit wins for the GOP.

In 2008, the state had a pool of registered voters that was akin to the 2004 pool: 46 percent were registered Democrats, 32 percent were registered Republicans (a slight decrease for both partisan groups), and 22 percent were registered “unaffiliated” (independent), a slight increase over the previous election.

But, if anyone had asked me in 2008 would a Democrat be able to win this state, I would have said that historically we’ve seen a GOP double-digit performance, combined with a similar composition of registered voters, so why would anything change?

There’s the danger of political prognostication. With a ground game that caught most folks by surprise, the Obama campaign shifted the electorate composition to their favor.

In the state’s 2008 exit polls, we saw a marked change: 42 percent of the electorate self-identified as Democrats (an increase of 3 over 2004), self-identified independents went to 27 percent (an increase of 6), while self-identified Republicans dropped to 31 percent (a decrease of 9). 

And the partisan allegiance of both parties strengthened, with 90 percent of Democrats voting for Obama while 95 percent of Republicans voted for McCain. Independents, however, showed a continued favor to the GOP, going 60-39 for McCain over Obama.

But when the dust settled after the narrow 14,000 vote-victory for Obama, the state board of elections reported that of the 4.2 million votes cast, 47 percent of them came from registered Democrats, while 33 percent came from registered Republicans and 20 percent came from registered unaffiliated voters.

2008 NC Electorate Comparisons.jpg

So, what might the past two elections tell us about this year’s election?  In comparing 2004 to 2008, we saw an electorate that grew from a little over 3.5 million votes cast out of 5.5 million registered voters to over 4.3 million votes cast out of 6.2 million registered voters. According to the state Board of Elections, we’re entering the campaign with roughly 6.4 million registered voters, so we should see somewhere in the range of 65 to 70 percent of registered voters—meaning 4.1 to 4.4 million voters.

2004 2008 Electorate Comparison_0.jpg

The turnout advantage was key to flipping North Carolina from ruby-red to deep purple, with the Obama campaign adding nearly 365,000 registered Democrats, along with 270,000 registered unaffiliated voters swelling the electorate. Republicans added 120,000 of their own to the electorate from 2004 (mind you, not an unimpressive number, but in comparison, they didn’t expect the Democratic groundswell to overtake the state). 

The biggest question that many political observers are looking at for this year’s election is, how big of a “base” election will this be?  If both partisan groups are energized and ready to do battle and with so few Americans appearing to be persuadable or undecided, then the ground game will be the deciding factor when it comes to who wins North Carolina and other (more important) swing states. 

In future postings, I’ll be looking more at the demographic breakdowns of the electorate, especially when it comes to the divide between early voters and election-day voters.