In a three-part series, WFAE looks at why Democrats continue to lose in most statewide races in North Carolina. In Part 3, we focus on reasons for low turnout in Mecklenburg County.
When Democrats nationwide did better than expected in last month’s election, political experts had an answer: Gen Z came to the rescue.
But in Mecklenburg County, they did not.
Mya Minden, a freshman at UNC Charlotte, said hardly anyone on campus was talking about the election or Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley.
“I didn’t vote. I wish I would have,” Minden said. “From what I experienced, there was almost no energy. There were voting signs and there was an early voting center on campus. Mostly what I heard was my professors saying, ‘Make sure you vote.’ It was only until afterward that I realized the importance of it, which really sucks because I have to wait another two years.”
Four years ago, there was no Senate race in North Carolina, and the top-of-the-ticket race for UNC Charlotte’s voting precinct was for the 12th Congressional District.
Precinct 141, which covers University City, gave Democratic incumbent Alma Adams 1,166 votes in a race she was never going to lose. Adams won her district with 73% of the vote.
This year, there was arguably much more at stake.
Beasley made history as the first Black woman to run for U.S. Senate in North Carolina.
Her race against Republican Ted Budd could have determined which party controlled the U.S. Senate. And after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, Democrats nationwide made abortion rights a key part of their campaigns.
But turnover in Precinct 141 dropped by nearly 40% compared with the 2018 midterms. Only 673 people voted for Beasley.
That happened even though there was an early voting site on campus this year. In 2018, it was off-campus on J.W. Clay Boulevard.
Abortion, which was such a critical issue in other states, didn’t drive young people to vote, Minden said.
“No, no. I wish it did,” she said. “There’s definitely a big (disconnect) between people my age — I’m 18 — and then people who are older that vote.”
She said her roommates voted, “but it was an afterthought.”
“They were like ‘Oh, it’s the last day to vote, let’s go and do it,’ ” Minden said. “They did it an hour before the voting stands closed.”
Why do Democrats keep losing?
As part of the three-part series Falling Short, WFAE is examining why Democrats have lost the last three presidential races and the last five U.S. Senate races. It’s a losing streak that stretches back since Barack Obama and Kay Hagan won in 2008.
The first story examined demographic changes that are helping Republicans, as North Carolina’s 10 fastest-growing counties are GOP strongholds.
The second story looked at the Democratic Party’s struggles in rural North Carolina, particularly in Anson County, a majority-minority county an hour east of Charlotte. Budd became the first Republican presidential or Senate candidate to win Anson County in 50 years.
This story looks at why Democrats are underperforming even in their strongest counties, like Mecklenburg. Turning out voters in these deep-blue bastions is critical for the party’s chances in federal elections that are often decided by thin margins.
In November’s election, turnout was 45%. The state average was 51%. In Wake County, 56% of registered voters cast ballots. Only seven of North Carolina’s 100 counties had a lower turnout than Mecklenburg.
Mecklenburg Democratic Party activist Sam Spencer, who is a spokesperson for Congresswoman Adams, said the large drop in turnout at UNC Charlotte “is one of the results that we should be most concerned about.”
“We saw in races across the country that young voters came out, made a difference in the Georgia races, in Pennsylvania, so the problem isn’t students or young voters not being motivated, because they clearly showed up across the country,” he added.
It wasn’t just the youth vote in Mecklenburg that lagged.
For instance, Precinct 210, which votes at the McCrorey YMCA off Beatties Ford Road, is nearly 90% non-white. The precinct has historically overwhelmingly backed Democrats.
Four years ago, Adams picked up nearly 2,800 votes there. Beasley only got 2,344. The Republican candidates got roughly the same number of votes in both years.
The same was true in other heavily Democratic areas along West Boulevard and Central Avenue.
In affluent south Charlotte, where thousands of former Republican voters flipped to the Democratic column in 2018, turnout was the same as four years ago. Beasley received roughly the same vote share as then-Congressional candidate Dan McCready.
“I think my reaction was like a sad parent. I was not mad, just disappointed,” Spencer said about the struggle to turn out all of the Democratic coalition. “At some point, you have to ask yourself, what’s the definition of insanity? And is it doing the same thing over and over again?”
Who was responsible for the low turnout?
Is it the county Democratic party? The state party? The Beasley campaign? Or Beasley herself?
Jane Whitley, the chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, said the state party was late starting what’s known as its “coordinated campaign.” That includes hiring field organizers to launch door-to-door campaigning.
She said that campaign was delayed this year because the state had to reorganize its staff. The state also launched a long-term effort called Building Blue.
“They were still organizing in August and September,” Whitley said. “They were still hiring people.”
Whitley said in 201 the state party had launched the “Break the Majority” campaign, which ultimately helped Democrats break GOP super-majorities in the General Assembly.
“They were organizing right after the primaries were over (in May),” she said. “We had folks on the ground and people knocking on doors. It didn’t seem that the same organization happened here.”
Whitley said the local Democratic Party can only do so much, and that financial support from the state party is crucial.
Bobbie Richardson, the chair of the state Democratic Party, declined to be interviewed for this story. The state party released a statement that said its efforts helped a number of Democrats win statewide.
The party added, however, “The numbers also bear out that there is a lot more work to do to mobilize a multi-racial, multi-generational, and geographically diverse coalition needed to win in North Carolina —but that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Meredith Cuomo stepped down as executive director of the state Democratic Party earlier this month. Lilian Taylor, a former digital director with the party, is now the interim director.
Beasley campaign: We needed more money from Washington
In an interview, Beasley campaign manager Travis Brimm said he did not have a problem with the amount of support from the state party. Beasley did at least 76 events in Mecklenburg County and had 10 paid staffers in Charlotte, he said.
“The story here is actually the spending disparity,” Brimm said, noting how outside Republican groups poured money into the North Carolina race. “The difference between Dem outside spending and Republican outside group spending is $53 million. And look, when you are getting outspent by that much money, it does have a negative impact on enthusiasm and turnout.”
Brimm said the campaign lobbied repeatedly to have Barack Obama come to North Carolina for a joint appearance with Beasley. That didn’t happen.
Stephanie Sneed, the former chair of the Black Political Caucus, said that would have likely energized voters.
“There is definitely what we call an Obama effect,” Sneed said. “Could it have had an import to push those numbers up? I definitely think it’s possible.”
That raises something of a chicken or egg question: Did national Democratic groups not spend as much in North Carolina — or send Obama — because they weren’t convinced Beasley was a strong enough candidate? Or was she a weak candidate, in part, because the national party didn’t support her?
Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, ran a busy campaign, visiting all 100 counties. But her crowds were often subdued.
Before he dropped out of the Democratic primary for Senate in Dec. 2021, Congressman-elect Jeff Jackson consistently drew larger and more enthusiastic crowds than Beasley.
Few competitive local races
There could be another factor in Mecklenburg’s turnout struggles: The county Democratic party is a victim of its own success.
Inside the county, Republicans only hold a handful of elected offices outside of the six towns. Down-ballot races are not competitive and generate little excitement.
And the court-drawn Congressional map this year gave Democrats two safe seats in the Charlotte area, meaning there was little interest in Adams’ and Jackson’s races.
Had turnout in Mecklenburg met the state average of 51%, Beasley likely would have netted an additional 20,000 votes. She lost by nearly 122,000 votes.
While Mecklenburg alone would not have propelled her to a win, Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said it was indicative of a statewide turnout problem. He said there were about 300,000 registered Democrats who voted in 2018 but not 2022. If they had all voted, Beasley might have won, he said.
He said he’s surprised Democrats didn’t pay more attention to Mecklenburg County.
“Maybe they took it for granted,” he said. “Maybe they thought, ‘We always get the vote out of there, maybe we don’t have to worry about it.’ ”
J. Miles Coleman with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said Democrats tend to do better in purple states where their voters are concentrated in one large metropolitan area, like Georgia (Atlanta) and Colorado (Denver).
He said North Carolina may be difficult because there are multiple urban areas with Democratic voters, like Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Greensboro, Fayetteville, and Asheville.
“That can make it hard to run a grassroots campaign,” he said. “It’s easier when most of your voters are in one place.”