RALEIGH — The North Carolina electorate took the opportunity of the 2004 elections to display its split personality once again — delivering an overwhelming vote to President George W. Bush and a surprisingly comfortable win to Republican Senate candidate Richard Burr while also giving Gov. Mike Easley a decisive re-election victory and Democrats complete control of the General Assembly.
A preliminary analysis by the John Locke Foundation of vote totals and exit-poll findings revealed Wednesday that the election’s seemingly inconsistent results — which also include two additional seats for Republicans on the Council of State and one on the state court of appeals — reflected the influence of both campaign strategies and the structure of state political districts.
Specifically, the JLF analysis found, Republican candidates for the state legislature appear to have outpolled their Democratic rivals Tuesday by more than 100,000 votes statewide — winning a clear majority of the total votes in North Carolina House races and a slight majority in state senate races.
But the GOP’s difficulties in recruiting candidates and raising campaign cash left it unprepared to contest most of the competitive seats in 2004, as did a new set of House and Senate districts enacted in 2003 that reduced the number of swing seats and weakened several Republican incumbents.
“If North Carolina elected its legislature the way other countries elected their parliaments, Republicans would likely be in charge in Raleigh,” said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation. “But we elected our lawmakers in districts, not by proportional representation. Republican candidates in key races were outmaneuvered and outgunned this year, and it showed.”
Still, the JLF analysis estimated that a shift of just a little more than 4,000 votes from Democratic to Republican candidates — or about 0.15 percent of the total votes cast — would have changed the outcome of enough districts to allow the Republicans to retain their numerical majority in the North Carolina House.
In the governor’s race, exit polls confirmed what the JLF Agenda 2004 poll had found in mid-October: Easley had successfully attracted not only the support of most unaffiliated and moderate voters but also nearly a third of self-described conservatives. The governor won 41 percent of voters naming taxes as the most important issue and 29 percent of those citing moral values as most important.
“Despite his own record of raising sales and income taxes, Mike Easley raised doubts in the minds of many voters about Patrick Ballantine’s fiscal conservatism,” Hood said. “It is extremely difficult for Republican candidates to be competitive in North Carolina if they do not win clearly and convincingly among the state’s growing plurality of conservative-leaning voters.”
Since the mid-1990s, the JLF Agenda poll has showed a steadily rising percentage of North Carolina voters labeling themselves as conservative. In 2004, the share reached 45 percent.
By contrast, Burr prevailed in the U.S. Senate by winning three-fourths of the vote among conservatives, 43 percent among moderates, two-thirds among those who thought that the tax issue was the most important, and 84 percent among those citing moral values as the most important. Burr appears to have received the votes of about 85 percent of Bush supporters in North Carolina, compared to Ballantine’s 70 percent.
The Republicans’ defeats for governor and state legislature were ameliorated to some degree by gains on the Council of State and appeals court, but Hood suggested that in general the GOP’s lackluster showing in North Carolina races diverged from the surprisingly strong Republican trend at the federal level.
“There are really two Republican parties here in North Carolina,” he said. “One has mastered the art of persuading swing voters to vote Republican on national issues such as fiscal policy and the war on terrorism. The other has not yet come up with the candidates, finances, and strategies necessary to define state issues clearly for voters and win key contests on Election Day, particularly against the odds of an unfavorable district map and a compressed general-election campaign.”
For more information about JLF’s preliminary analysis of the 2004 elections in North Carolina, call John Hood at 919-828-3876 or email him at [email protected]