The Numbers Are In: Breaking Down NC's 2016 Voter Demographics

Jan 2, 2017

For most of us who study North Carolina politics, 2008’s election was the great demarcation in terms of the state being a “strong Republican” presidential state (George W. Bush won by 13 percentage points) to a competitive battleground. 2008’s election saw a notable difference from 2004’s election in that registered Democrats matched registered Republicans in their turnout.

In both 2012 and 2016, the slight dip in Democratic turnout may point to the narrow wins for both Romney and Trump, with Trump’s wider margin of victory (3.6 percent vs. 2 percent for Romney) also due to the increased GOP turnout from four years ago.

Party affiliation, by most accounts, is a determining factor when it comes to a voter’s choice in an election and how they see the political world, and this year’s nearly 90 percent vote by partisan self-identifiers continues a long-developing trend. But race is also an important factor when it comes to making North Carolina a competitive battleground state, especially when it came to reconstructing the potential Obama coalition dynamics from 2008.

In 2004, two-thirds of registered white voters cast ballots, while a little under 60 percent of registered black voters cast ballots. But in the Obama ground game strategy, registered black turnout surpassed white turnout, with a two-point difference in both 2008 and 2012. Perhaps the difference in Obama winning in 2008 and losing in 2012 was the decline in turnout from “all other races” (Asian, native American, multi-racial, and all others/unknown racial voters).

This year, the drop in both black turnout and the increase in white turnout could be another contributor to the Trump victory in the state, and speaks to the lack of Obama on the ticket.

Finally, age has become another telling factor in voter choice, with what appears to be a dividing line between Baby Boomers and older voters and Millennials and Generation Xers, at least per this year’s exit polls.

The state board of elections groups voters into age categories that don’t necessarily align with generational cohorts, but the pattern of time of these age categories makes it clear that North Carolina electorates tend to be older in nature.

Again, compared to 2004, the 2008 election with the Obama ground game focused on minorities and younger voters are demonstrated in the turnout rates, with 18-24-year-old voters going from a turnout rate of 53 percent to 62 percent, then dropping to 55 and 53 percent in 2012 and this year, respectively.

Conversely, the most reliable voters tend to be those over 41 years old in North Carolina elections, with 2012 and 2016 seeing three-quarters of registered voters in those categories casting ballots.

In looking at this data, it seems that the Clinton strategy of trying to resurrect the Obama coalition, at least in North Carolina, failed to materialize, specifically among registered Democratic voters, black voters, and younger voters. But did Trump turn out new voters as he claimed he would?

In breaking down the 2016 electorate, I isolated those voters who were registered in 2012 and who didn’t cast a ballot four years ago but did this year.  Among these nearly 300,000 voters, 35 percent of them were registered Democrats, 35 percent of them registered unaffiliated voters, and 29 percent were registered Republicans. Among the racial composition of these new voters, nearly three-quarters were white, with 38 percent of these white voters being registered unaffiliated, 37 percent registered Republicans, and 25 percent registered Democrats.

However, among current registered North Carolina voters who voted in 2012 but didn’t show this year, 46 percent were registered Democrats, 28 percent were unaffiliated, and 26 percent were Republicans. Of the registered Democrats, 82 percent were black voters; if these 169,800 black Democrats had shown up, Trump’s margin of victory could have been significantly smaller, with nearly 90 percent of black voters casting ballots for Clinton, per exit polls.

Among white voters, registered Republicans were the largest segment (39 percent, or 165,000) who showed up in 2012 but did not vote in 2016; half of them were from urban counties. Trump brought out new voters this year, but the likelihood is that most of these new voters were unaffiliated. However, this bloc of new voters was enough to overcome the loss of Republican voters who stayed home. Clinton, meanwhile, didn’t have a bloc to make up for the loss of registered Democrats who chose not to vote.