NC-GOV: The Counties to Watch

I've spent the last 24 hours pondering how I'll figure out which counties to watch on election night in the North Carolina governor's ...
by | October 30, 2008

I've spent the last 24 hours pondering how I'll figure out which counties to watch on election night in the North Carolina governor's race. Identifying the key counties to watch in Washington state (for the governor's race) and South Dakota (for the abortion ban ballot measure) was easy. The Washington governor's race is a rematch of 2004 and the abortion ban vote is a repeat of 2006. The same places that mirrored the statewide vote in those elections probably will again this year.

In North Carolina's there's nothing like that. Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Bev Perdue haven't faced off in an election before. McCrory's never even run statewide before now. And, since North Carolina hasn't had a major statewide election since 2004, every possible comparison is a bit stale. 

That means that identifying the counties to watch in North Carolina is more art than science. But, here's my solution. 

In 2004, Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, easily won reelection (with 55.6% of the vote). Republican Richard Burr won a relatively close race for U.S. Senate (with 51.6% of the vote). If a county went for both Easley and Burr, it deserves consideration for bellwether status.

By my count, 34 of North Carolina's 100 counties fit that description. Assuming the North Carolina governor's race isn't the only election you care about this year, you obviously don't want to be following 34 counties at once.

So, I'll highlight a few where both Easley and Burr's percentages of the votes were quite close to their statewide total -- within two percentage points. Those counties are Dare, Duplin, Forsyth, Greene, Lee, Lenoir, Montgomery and Sampson. Of these, by far the largest is Forsyth County, which is home to Winston-Salem.

I also checked the results of each of those counties in the 2004 presidential race and, gratifyingly, each came fairly close to matching the statewide result. Bush took 56% statewide. He won each of these counties with between 54% and 61% of the vote.

Still, I'm only moderately confident that these counties will be true bellwethers. The McCrory-Perdue race seems unusually unlikely to mirror previous North Carolina maps. That's because North Carolina has been undergoing demographic changes, but also because McCrory, as the mayor of Charlotte, has a regional strength in the Charlotte area.

If he runs up big margins in his home territory, McCrory could still win if he does slightly worse than a Republican typical needs to do in other parts of the state. So, I'll be keeping an eye on the results from Mecklenburg County (where Charlotte is located) and, in particular, will be watching how much better McCrory is doing than his fellow Republicans, John McCain and Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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