Picking Up Pieces After the Election

Bert Bennett, the political godfather to both Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt, used to say of elections, “When you win, everything you did was right. When you lose, everything you did was wrong.” 

In other words, don’t jump to conclusions about why you won or lost. 

Much instant analysis of the 2020 election follows barking-dog logic: “My dog barked in the dark this morning, and the sun came up. Therefore, my dog caused the sun to come up.”

Often, people jump to conclusions that reflect their personal opinions, biases and preferences.

Take Democrats who were disappointed because the landslide they anticipated never landed. Liberal Democrats conclude: we weren’t liberal enough. Moderate Democrats say: we were too liberal.

Democrats also formed up their traditional post-election circular firing squad:

“The NC Democratic Party needs a complete overhaul.”

“Every pollster should be fired.”

Bert Bennett

There was even criticism of Governor Roy Cooper for not pulling Joe Biden and Cal Cunningham to victory in North Carolina.

He might just as well have tried to part the Pamlico Sound.

Instead of prematurely drawing sweeping conclusions, we should focus on asking the right questions. Here are four suggestions.

Why did Donald Trump – again – surprise the experts?

Like it or not, understand it or not, Trump is the greatest voter-turnout machine in politics.

For both parties.

Trump – and Trumpism – aren’t going away. Grasping his appeal would help a lot in grasping this election.   

Race surely is part of it. But not all of it. Some reports say he picked up surprising levels of support from Black and Latino men.

Is it his swaggering strongman style? Is it that, as one man said, “he doesn’t talk like a politician; he talks like me”?

Does he channel the anger and anxiety many Americans feel in a changing world, along with rejection of a political class that hasn’t adequately addressed their concerns?

A couple of years back, a Republican strategist explained it simply: “He’s fighting the people they hate.”

Why were polls so far off?

First of all, were they that far off? They got a lot right, like Joe Biden and Roy Cooper winning. And polls come with something called “margin of error” for a reason.

In races so close and an electorate so evenly divided, a shift of 2-4 points makes all the difference. The hardest thing to model in polls is turnout. Trump made a mess of turnout models.

Pollster Harrison Hickman, a North Carolina native, warned a group of Democrats last spring about the perils of polling during the Covid-19 crisis. “It’s unclear whether polls are working like they should,” he said. In normal times, poll calls are made from centralized call centers. Quality control is high. Today, callers work from home. There’s not as much oversight.

Hickman added that many polls now are made by automated calls, which legally can call only land lines, not cell phones. Some polls are done online, but only 50-60 percent of Americans are regularly online.

He added this week that there may have been a bigger issue: “a significant group of white men not revealing a Trump preference when they perceived the interviewer to be Black and/or female.”

How do you campaign in a pandemic?

A Democratic legislator noted that the party’s candidates and campaign workers did far less door-knocking and in-person campaigning across the state this year. They thought it would be hypocritical to campaign that way when Governor Cooper was calling on people to wear masks and practice social-distancing.

Republicans apparently did more house-to-house canvassing than Democrats. Trump’s 10 rallies in North Carolina, plus more by surrogates, were valuable organizing tools. The legislator said that, especially in rural areas, evangelical churches were voter-turnout hubs for Republicans.

What would Bert do?

Bert Bennett was good at politics because he didn’t make decisions based on emotion or the excitement plan. He was a hard-eyed, bottom-line businessman. He wanted facts, not theories and guesses.

We all could use a dose of Bert now.

Roy Cooper Won Big. And Lost Big

Governor Roy Cooper did something this election that North Carolina’s last two governors couldn’t do: win a second term. 

Now he may have to do something no governor has done in nearly 30 years: work with a hostile legislature throughout both his terms. 

For four years, Cooper labored mightily to break Republicans’ hold on the General Assembly. He recruited candidates, raised tons of money and put his campaign team to work on legislative races.

In 2018, Democrats broke the supermajority. This year, they hoped to make bigger gains. They even dreamed of winning a majority in one or both houses.

It didn’t happen. 

Cooper had planned a big push to expand Medicaid, roll back corporate tax cuts and raise teacher pay. What now?

Election night

He and legislative leaders have made predictable post-election promises about working together. But Republicans might treat Cooper the same way the Democratic majority treated Republican Governor Jim Martin throughout his two terms, 1985 to 1993.

Legislators routinely ignored and insulted Martin. When he sent over his proposed budgets, Democrats had a little private ceremony and dumped the document in the trash can.

Cooper remembers. He was in the House and Senate then.

While the Governor is far too disciplined and controlled to show it, he has to be frustrated. After all, he pulled off an amazing feat. He got elected twice despite President Trump carrying the state both times. In 2016, he beat an incumbent, one of the hardest things to do in politics.

Cooper’s handling of Covid-19 helped him this year. It always helps Governors politically when they can command the airwaves showing they’re in command.

It also helps to have a weak opponent. Dan Forest bet all his chips on Reopen NC. It didn’t pay off.

Both of Cooper’s immediate predecessors served only one term. Cooper defeated Governor Pat McCrory four years ago. In 2012, Governor Bev Perdue stepped down after one term, knowing she faced a tough reelection race. 

Before that, Governors routinely won two terms: Jim Hunt (who did it twice, 1977-85 and 1993-2001), Jim Martin (1985-93) and Mike Easley (2001-2009). 

Hunt and Perdue had to deal with Republican legislatures during part of their terms. 

Perdue was hamstrung and frustrated by Republicans who controlled both the House and Senate her last two years.

Hunt faced a Republican House from 1995-1999. But he had a Democratic Senate. He worked with Republicans on some big things, like teacher pay raises, Smart Start and gubernatorial veto. Republicans helped pass the veto in large part because Governor Martin had been so frustrated by his lack of it.

But Governor Cooper doesn’t want the story of his eight years in office to be written with a veto pen.

What will he do?

He can try to forge compromises. He said last week he’ll try.

Or he can pick fights with Republicans and focus on winning the legislature in 2022. Donald Trump won’t be on the ballot, and that helped Democrats in 2018. But that would leave Cooper only two years. Everybody will be looking at the next Governor’s race.

Perhaps Cooper should ponder the question a North Carolina Democrat texted me: “How much consideration for President or Vice President should be bestowed upon a Southern Democratic governor who just handily won reelection despite the Republican president carrying the state both times?”

In 2024, Democrats may need a new face on the national ticket – and a new winning formula. Virginia and Georgia have shown that the South can be part of the formula. 

Why not North Carolina?

The Ticket Splitter is Extinct

Once upon a time, a creature called the “Ticket Splitter” roamed the landscape, dominating politics and deciding elections.

This strange animal had habits difficult for us to comprehend today. It would go into the polling place on Election Day (there being no “early vote” and few “mail-in ballots” then), work its way down the ballot and – get this – pick and choose among candidates of different parties.

The creature might vote for a Republican for President, a Democrat for Governor and then another Republican for U.S. Senate. It might prefer the Democrat for U.S. House, a Republican for state Senate and then another Democrat for state House. 

Moving down the food chain, it would vote for a Democrat it liked here, a Republican it had met there, etc., etc.

I told you it was a strange beast.

All lesser political animals quaked before it. Every election, they sought its unpredictable favor. Pollsters, pundits and political scientists poked and prodded it, examined it from head to toe and sought to understand and predict its predilections.

No more. You can examine this week’s (still-incomplete) election returns and see that the ticket-splitter is dead, gone and buried.

Virtually every Republican in a statewide race got the same number of votes as President Trump, 2.7 million. Senator Thom Tillis got a few less, about 2.6 million. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler got 2.8 million.

Democrats got about the same as Joe Biden, 2.6 million or less. Governor Roy Cooper got 2.8 million. Agriculture Commissioner candidate Jenna Wadsworth, 2.4 million.

Go down the ballot and you’ll see the same pattern. 

Back in the 1980s, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously coined the line “All politics is local.” No more, Tip. Now all politics is national. And, beyond that, tribal.

Especially in the Age of Trump. He has accelerated the tendency of nearly all voters to pick a side, Democrat or Republican, and stick with it all up and down the ballot.

North Carolina Democrats were surprised by Tuesday’s results because they underestimated (again, as in 2016) Trump’s vote-getting power. Trump – not state or local issues – decided the fate of candidates at all levels.

Some $250 million was spent in the U.S. Senate race, yet Tillis and Cal Cunningham tracked the totals of Trump and Biden. Actually, both got a little less. That reflects a lack of enthusiasm for each within their parties.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1984, when Jim Hunt ran against Jesse Helms for Senate, Hunt ran 10 points ahead of Walter Mondale; Hunt got 47.8% and Mondale, 37.8%. Ronald Reagan beat Mondale by 1.3 million votes to 824,000. Helms beat Hunt by 1.15 million to 1.07 million.

Some 200,000 voters – 10% of the electorate – voted for Reagan and Hunt. (Yep, North Carolina was a lot smaller then.)

The term “ticket splitter” was popularized by an adopted North Carolinian, Walter de Vries, a political consultant, author, and founder of the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership. In 1972, he co-authored a book titled “The Ticket-Splitter.” 

Walt was from Michigan, where he worked for Governor George Romney, father of Mitt. He moved to Wrightsville Beach in 1972 and taught at Duke and UNC-Wilmington.

Walt died last year at age 90. He lived long enough to see the demise of the dinosaur he studied.

Democrats Overdo It

Within just a few hours Tuesday night, Democrats went from overconfidence to overreaction.

The overconfidence wasn’t justified. Nor is the overreaction.

Nationally – and in North Carolina – Democrats awoke on Election Day with visions dancing in their heads of massive early vote, mountains of mail-in ballots and sweeping landslides.

James Carville, Democrats’ favorite talking serpent-head, promised they’d be cracking the champagne by 10 pm.


The champagne stayed on ice.

It didn’t take long to realize there wasn’t going to be a big blue breakthrough in the South, though Georgia remained too close to call Wednesday.

Democrats in Florida, Texas and – yes – North Carolina who begged Joe Biden’s campaign to go there more should be glad the Biden brain trust shunned those sideshows and stayed focused on the real game: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

By the wee hours Wednesday morning, Democrats went into full finger-pointing, breast-beating mode as Trump swept the South and Republicans won big in North Carolina: President, U.S. Senate, legislature, Council of State and judicial races. They sounded ready to jump out the window.

They’re overreacting.

North Carolina remains an evenly and deeply divided state. Biden did about two points better here than Hillary Clinton did. Governor Roy Cooper won comfortably. Attorney General Josh Stein has a narrow lead. Deborah Ross, Kathy Manning, Elaine Marshall and Beth Wood won.

Clearly, North Carolina Democrats had been overconfident. They were saying in the final weeks that Biden might carry the state, Cal Cunningham would win and Democrats could gain seats in the legislature.

They need to reexamine the polls and data they relied on. And they need to change something they’re doing. But, as one young Democrat said, “That something could be any one of four dozen things.”

As an example, he added, “I think in NC specifically, we are communicating to an electorate that doesn’t quite exist yet – the demographic blue wave that’s hitting our cities, but is probably still a decade or so away from fundamentally reshaping our politics – at the expense of rural and urban-adjacent counties, where we have effectively zero support anymore.”

An experienced Democrat added that the party needs “some serious and honest soul-searching to learn from what went wrong and what that means about how to move forward.”

That beats leaping off the ledge.

Will North Carolina Become a “Bluetopia”?

“North Carolina is getting bigger and bluer,” a well-placed Democratic political consultant told me in mid-October.

He was feeling confident about this election and Democrats’ future here. Like many in the party, he believes North Carolina is headed toward being a Democratic state, a couple of steps behind Virginia and a couple ahead of Georgia.

This week’s election will tell us a lot. Or maybe not. If Democrats do well, is that simply a rejection of Trump – or a lasting trend? If they don’t do well, it doesn’t bode well for dreams of a “bluetopia.”

There’s no question North Carolina’s getting bigger. Nearly 1.8 million new voters registered between 2016 election and now. They make up nearly 25% of the state’s 7.3 million registered voters.

Many new voters are under 30; they tend to vote Democratic even though they often register as unaffiliated. Many new voters are from Wake and Mecklenburg counties, which have become strongly Democratic.

The percentages of non-white voters and college-educated voters are growing, while the percentage of non-college whites diminishes. That’s a good trend for Democrats.

Mac McCorkle of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy wrote:

“Democrats could be on an unstoppable path toward demographic dominance in North Carolina politics by 2040. According to a report last year from researchers at the Brookings Institute and the Center for American Progress, minority groups will make up 40 percent of the state’s population by 2036. And the Brookings-CAP team projected that the state’s election results would turn solidly Democratic blue well before that date.”

But McCorkle, who has decades of practical political experience as a Democratic consultant here and across the South, offers a caution: “Such a progressive scenario could well be too good to be true.”

Typically, he says, we view North Carolina as divided between Democratic cities and Republican rural areas and small towns. But that leaves out just over 5.2 million “in-between” North Carolinians—those living in metropolitan areas outside the state’s big cities, like Johnston, Alamance, Union, Cabarrus and Gaston counties.

McCorkle wrote:

“Democrats may want to write off these sources of Republican strength in outer metropolitan North Carolina as merely a function of the state’s soon-to-expire whiteness. But such areas may contain a deep-seated ‘countrypolitan’ resistance to any kind of urban or university-based liberalism. In cultural terms, its informal anthems could remain in the country-populistic vein of Darius Rucker’s ‘Wagon Wheel’ remake rather than the rock-elegiac ‘Carolina on My Mind’ of North Carolina expatriate James Taylor.”

This year, he says, Trump may lose the state because he loses a crucial number of countrypolitans. But McCorkle raises “a not-so-outside possibility that should deeply concern Democrats about a post-Trump era” – non-white Republican politicians who “harness this countrypolitan instinct into a powerful political persuasion.” Maybe someone like former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley.

Whatever happens in this election, McCorkle cautions, “Bluntly put, the destiny of a new Democratic progressivism in North Carolina and the nation is not at all manifest. The political future may remain up for grabs in 2040 and beyond.”

Electing Opposites

If Joe Biden wins, it will continue the great American tradition of electing a new President who is the exact opposite of the last one.

Watching Biden and President Trump debate – or their interviews on 60 Minutes – was like watching beings from two planets.

They’re both white males in their 70s. Otherwise, everything about them is opposite.

Even their complexions and coloring are opposite. Trump’s face has a dark red hue; Biden is pale. Biden’s hair is white; Trump’s is described on Google as “flaxen.”

Their facial expressions are opposite. Trump tends to be angry, sometimes snarling; his grins fade fast. Biden smiles more and flashes his white choppers; his anger takes an injured, indignant tone.

They talk different. Trump is bombastic and aggressive; Biden’s stammer makes him more hesitant. Trump fires off verbal broadsides; Biden expounds at length and sometimes gets lost in the details.

If they were in your family, Trump would be your opinionated uncle and Biden, your indulgent grandfather.

Their political personas are opposites.

To his supporters, Trump is the angry avenging angel, out to end what he called in his Inaugural Address “this American carnage.” To his supporters, Biden is the soothing, empathetic figure, eager to gather Americans in a group hug.

One reason for Trump’s reelection troubles is his aggressive style. He’s always in your face, on Twitter and on the news. Some people just feel worn out by him.

Biden has a more soothing, even soporific, style. Even some Democrats find him boring, but they want to turn down the volume from the White House. 

Their life experiences are opposite. Trump is a showy, often-overextended businessman. Biden has been in government most of his life. Trump’s father was rich; Biden’s family struggled financially. Trump is the consummate political outsider; Biden, the consummate insider.

The contrast is no accident. One reason Biden came back from the political dead – remember, he was written off as late as last February – is that he presents such a clear alternative to Trump.

From the beginning, Americans have made a habit of trading in one model of President for a totally different model. As early as 1800, the first real contested election, we switched from New England patrician John Adams to Virginia slaveowner Thomas Jefferson. We haven’t stopped trading in the old model for a new one since.

In 1932, we traded in grim, dour Herbert Hoover for jaunty, confident FDR.

In 1960, we went from aging Ike to youthful JFK.

In 1976, we went from Richard Nixon and Watergate to Sunday School-teaching, “I’ll never lie to you” Jimmy Carter.

In 1980, we traded in a vacillating Carter for the resolute Ronald Reagan.

After eight years of Reagan, even his own Vice President, George W.H. Bush, promised to be “kinder and gentler.”

In 1992, Bush seemed out of touch with everyday Americans. Bill Clinton bit his lip and felt our pain.

In 2000, both Al Gore and George W. Bush presented a family-man contrast to Clinton’s scandals.

In 2008, we exchanged W’s from-the-gut style and tangled syntax with Obama’s cerebral cool and soaring oratory.

In 2016, we went from Obama to Trump.

If we bought cars like we pick Presidents, we’d have a family sedan for four years, then trade it in for a flashy sports car. Or we’d go from a Prius to a pickup truck.

This year, will we stick with the gold-plated Cadillac with flashy trim – or go for the Buick that dreams of being a Camaro?

The Election May Not Be Over Election Night

Voters and media alike, beware: We may not know the winners next Tuesday night. We may not know until all eligible absentee ballots are counted days later.

Voters should stay tuned, and media outlets should stay the temptation to “call” elections on Election Night. 

Why? Because the coronavirus means more people are voting by mail, and because disproportionately more Democrats than Republicans appear to be voting by mail.

The upshot: President Trump and other Republicans may be ahead Election Night, or even declare victory, but end up losing.

This is a recipe for discord, dissension and disruption.

A new study says North Carolina is one of nine states where this “blue shift” could be big enough to change results. As things stand now in our state, absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and received through November 12 will be counted. If races are close and if thousands of absentee ballots come in late, we may not know the winners until mid-November.

(A reminder: absentee ballots and mail-in ballots are the same thing.)

This scenario is scarier than any October Surprise or Halloween Horror. We’re already at each other’s throats over the election. President Trump has told rallies all over the country – with no basis in fact – that mail-in ballots are crooked. Many Democrats believe Trump and Republicans can win only by voter suppression and cheating.

Covid-19 has upended our lives since March. Now the pandemic might upend our lives, our elections and our nation’s stability in November and December.

As one Democratic strategist said, “Trump and his supporters are going to scream if it looks like he’s going to win on election night, but gradually loses as mail ballots are counted.”

He added, “The media is only making a half-hearted effort to make people aware this is likely to happen.”

North Carolina experienced something like this four years ago. Then-Governor Pat McCrory led now-Governor Roy Cooper most of Election Night 2016. Finally, late at night, the 90,000 votes from heavily Democratic Durham County came in. Cooper edged ahead. 

McCrory and Republicans howled. They demanded a recount. They claimed fraud in Durham. McCrory didn’t concede for weeks, until it became clear he had lost by just over 10,000 votes out of 4.6 million cast.

McCrory concession video, December 2016

The Washington Post published an analysis of the election-shift scenario by a group called the Covid-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, which surveys Americans on attitudes and behaviors related to the coronavirus pandemic: 

“(G)iven the pandemic, many more voters than usual are expected to cast their ballots by mail in the 2020 general election….If in-person ballots are disproportionately cast by Republicans and mail-in ballots disproportionately cast by Democrats, some states’ results may undergo a ‘blue shift’ — shifting further toward the Democratic candidate over time.”

Along with North Carolina, the states where the shift could be significant are Alaska, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. 

All nine have two things in common: First, they’re competitive. Second, they don’t process all mailed-in ballots before Election Day, or they accept ballots that arrive late but are postmarked by Election Day. Several are key battlegrounds in the presidential race.

The consortium concluded:

“Given the tensions surrounding this election, journalists, pundits and voters alike may wish to keep in mind that if a candidate declares victory on election night, that lead may evaporate as more votes are counted.”

It won’t be over until all the votes are counted.

Link to Washington Post article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/10/20/these-9-swing-states-will-see-biggest-blue-shift-ballots-are-counted-after-election/

Jim Hunt Likes Debates

My former boss, Governor Jim Hunt, takes issue with my blog “Do Away with Debates.”

He called to say, “We need to have joint appearances, where people get to compare the candidates – side by side.” 

He added, “Of course, then you’ve got to have the power in a moderator to handle it, cut them off, cut them slam off. It can be done, so we can see them and see how they react.”

Governor Hunt knows something about debates. He went toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with Senator Jesse Helms in four debates in 1984 that were the political equivalent of Ali-Frazier heavyweight fights.

The 1984 Senate race for long, hard-fought and expensive. The debates riveted voters’ attention.

To negotiate debate rules, Governor Hunt appointed his long-time friend Phil Carlton, a former state Supreme Court Justice, with me as the junior partner. Helms picked the late Tom Ellis, his political godfather, and Carter Wrenn.

When the four of us met with representatives of the N.C. Broadcasters Association, there was no love lost in the room. As Carter said in a Spectrum News podcast he and I did recently, “We looked across the table and saw devils.”

So did we.

But a funny thing happened as the talks went on. The broadcasters wanted a format that highlighted their on-camera talent. The two campaigns wanted more free-flowing faceoffs that turned the candidates loose.

Gradually, the “devils” in both campaigns found we agreed with each other, not the broadcasters.

We invited the broadcasters to step outside. The four of us quickly agreed on rules. The candidates could even ask each other questions. The broadcasters weren’t happy, but they had no choice.

The debates were rock-‘em, sock-‘em affairs. Hunt and Helms were tough, experienced candidates. They knew the issues, had strong disagreements and relished the chance to confront each other.

First Hunt-Helms debate

But they didn’t interrupt each other, or the moderators.  

After Carter Wrenn and I later became good friends, he told me that Hunt surprised Helms and his campaign in the first debate. The Governor was quicker, tougher and more aggressive than they expected.

Senator Helms was deflated afterward. Carter was primed to lay into him for his passive performance. But Helms disarmed him; he said he was so disappointed in himself that he hated going home and facing his wife.

Helms went to work and got better. For the next debate, he prepared a set of folders on each issue and took them to the stage. Whenever an issue came up, Helms pulled out a folder with the key points he wanted to make.

There were some tense and dramatic moments.

During an exchange over veterans’ benefits, Helms suddenly asked, “And what war did you fight in, Jim?” An angry Hunt shot back, “I don’t like you questioning my patriotism.”

(An aside: Helms spent World War II safely stateside as a Navy recruiting officer. Years later, somebody mentioned to then-Senator Terry Sanford that he and Helms were always on opposite sides of issues. Sanford, who was wounded in combat and decorated for bravery in Europe, said, “Yep, and in World War II we were on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”)

Helms brought up the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., which he opposed and filibustered against on the Senate floor:

“Now, which is more important to you, Governor, getting yourself elected with the enormous black vote, or protecting the Constitution and the people of North Carolina.”

Hunt was ready:

“Jesse, which is most important to you, getting reelected or having the people of this state upset and fighting and set at odds against each other?…This is 1984. This is a progressive state. We’re not going back now and open those old wounds.”

It was a great moment, but Hunt paid a price. A poll we commissioned after the election showed an almost 100% correlation between voters’ opinions on the King holiday and how they voted. Hunt narrowly lost the election, even though he ran far ahead of Walter Mondale, who was getting swamped by Ronald Reagan.

Carter says their campaigns’ polls showed Hunt won the first three debates and the fourth was a tie.

There’s another reason to heed Governor Hunt on debates. When he was Lieutenant Governor from 1973 to 1977, he presided over the state Senate. He never left the podium, because he knew some Senators would try to take away his power to appoint committees. (They finally did that in 1989.)

From the chair, Hunt had the chance to watch floor debates: “I saw what works and what doesn’t.” And he used the gavel to keep order.

Accordingly, I amend my position on debates. Next time, have Jim Hunt moderate them.

Covid, Classrooms and Corporations: The Cooper-Forest Campaign

Covid dominates North Carolina’s Governor’s race, and it likely will determine the outcome. But there’s another big difference between the two candidates. It gets less attention, but matters more for the future. 

It’s an issue that North Carolina has debated for more than 60 years: What is the best way to build a better future – cut taxes or invest in public education?

As he runs for a second four-year term, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper frames the choice as “classrooms or corporations.” He says the Republican-majority legislature has passed tax cuts for big corporations and wealthy individuals at the expense of public education.

Republican Lt. Governor Dan Forest supports the legislature’s tax cuts. Like Republicans in the legislature, he supports vouchers and tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools.

This debate goes back to the 1950s. That’s when North Carolina emerged as an economic powerhouse, attracting industries from across the country and around the world.

Governor Luther Hodges (1954-1961), a retired textile executive, made his mark as an industry hunter. The state offered companies lower taxes as an inducement for locating factories here. Low taxes – along with less regulation, low wages and low unionization – became North Carolina’s calling card in corporate boardrooms.

But a competing philosophy emerged, championed by Governor Terry Sanford (1961-1965), the patron saint of North Carolina’s post-World War II progressives. 

Sanford said North Carolina should focus on better education as the best foundation for the future. As Governor, he prevailed on a reluctant legislature to levy a sales tax on food to pay for an ambitious education program.

Jonathan Yardley wrote of Sanford in The Washington Post in 1985:

“Teacher salaries went up 22 percent, a statewide system of community colleges was established, the North Carolina School of the Arts was created; the foundation was laid by Sanford for the more sophisticated and expensive educational improvements that may prove to be the chief legacy of the state’s most recent ex-governor, James B. Hunt Jr.”

Governor Cooper, like Governor Hunt (1977-1985 and 1993-2001) subscribes to the Sanford philosophy. So did Democratic Governor Mike Easley (2001-2009), who like Sanford passed a tax increase to fund education improvements. 

For decades, there was bipartisan support for what was called “North Carolina’s civic religion” of investing in public schools to promote economic development. Republican Governor Jim Holshouser (1973-1977) supported statewide kindergartens and big pay raises for teachers. Republican Governor Jim Martin (1985-1993) pushed for Reagan-like tax cuts in his first term but also supported the Basic Education Plan to boost public schools.

Because of a booming economy – and rising tax revenues – North Carolina could both cut taxes and spend more money on schools. When Republicans took the House in 1994, they and Governor Hunt agreed to pass big tax cuts. Then, in 1997, key Republicans supported Hunt’s billion-dollar-plus plans to raise teacher pay to the national average and expand the Smart Start early-childhood program.

The bipartisan consensus shattered after Republicans took both houses of the legislature in 2010. They focused on passing billions of dollars in corporate tax cuts, and education advocates say public schools have suffered.

The legislature also has directed money to private schools. That’s another echo of the 1950s, when private schools emerged as an alternative to integrated public schools. 

This election offers North Carolinians the clearest choice between these dueling philosophies since Sanford ran for Governor in 1960. Today’s headlines focus on Covid, health care, face masks and how fast to reopen schools and businesses in the pandemic. But the future may ride on the choice between classrooms and corporations.

2020 Isn’t 2016

I’m scheduled to talk about the election on WRAL’s “On the Record” with David Crabtree at 7:30 pm Saturday. The show will be available online after.

Too many people, on both sides politically, look at this year’s election through the lens of 2016. But viewing the future through the lens of the past obscures the present.

Democrats see Joe Biden leading the polls today, but vividly remember how stunned and sickened they were on election night 2016. They fear a replay.

President Trump’s supporters see the same polls and remember their joy and surprise four years ago. They relish a replay.

The fundamentals this year are very different from 2016.

This election is a referendum on Trump. 

2016 was a referendum on Hillary Clinton. She was essentially the incumbent. Trump was the newcomer and the challenger. Now he’s the incumbent. He has a record to defend.

That’s a perilous prospect amid a pandemic that has killed 215,000 Americans and infected the President and the White House and disrupted the lives of millions of Americans and caused an economic collapse that has hurt millions of people and thousands of businesses.

Bad economic times are bad for incumbents. See Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. And none of them presided over a pandemic.

In 1992, James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This year, it’s the Covid, stupid.

Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton.

Fair or not, Hillary (and Bill) Clinton had built up huge negatives after 25 years on the national stage. Fair or not, Hillary inherited the fallout from Bill’s faults and failings. Fair or not – and it’s not fair, but it’s a fact – Hillary suffered from sexism and misogyny.

Biden doesn’t have those negatives. He has a united party behind him, and Clinton didn’t. Democrats didn’t, as once looked possible, nominate a candidate who could easily be painted as a radical socialist.

Hillary also suffered one of the truly unfortunate – and unfair – bad breaks in the history of politics. FBI Director James Comey’s decision to announce he was reopening the investigation of her emails, just 11 days before the election, proved deadly.

Some 18 percent of voters then didn’t like Clinton or Trump. They broke for Trump three-to-one.

Clinton may have lost because the pundits said she was sure to win. How many people voted for Trump as a protest, expecting him to lose? It might have been just enough in an election that turned on a few thousand voters in a handful of states. Trump won the Presidency because he won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by just over 100,000 votes combined. 

There’s Trump fatigue.

People can get tired of anything. Even the most popular TV shows lose their audience after a while. Trump may have worn out his welcome.

He has governed like no President before him. He wields Twitter as a weapon. He attacks his enemies with a ruthlessness and recklessness not seen since Joe McCarthy. He calls them monsters and criminals who should be in jail. He’s unbound by the boundaries – on language, untruthfulness, invective and personal insults – that historically have governed presidential behavior.

He sows new controversy daily, even hourly. He reverses himself constantly. Last week, he torpedoed Covid stimulus talks in Congress. Then he did a U-turn and called on Congress to pass something big. 

Sometimes people get tired of chaos, combat and controversy. They want what Warren Harding called “normalcy.”

Is there a hidden vote, a “Silent Majority”?

Trump supporters say there was in 2016, and they say it will be there again this year. But for all the treasons listed above, there also could be a hidden anti-Trump vote.

This year, there seems nothing hidden or silent about Trump voters. They are loud. They proudly fly their Trump flags and hoist their Trump signs. They parade in boats, golf carts and pickup trucks.

But polls and early vote totals also show a wave of energy building against Trump. Some knowledgeable Democrats – and Republicans – sense a potential avalanche ahead.

Young voters seemed to be turned off by Trump and motivated to vote. Black voters appear highly motivated. Suburban women are breaking for Biden. Anti-Trump Republicans are vocal and visible.

Silent majorities can cut both ways.

What lies ahead?

Yes, Trump can still win. He’s close in key electoral states. For all the controversy he’s caused, he clearly has touched something deep in a significant share of the American people.

Part of it, undeniably, is racist – and contemptable. Part of it is anger toward “elites” – the media, liberals, government, the college-educated and “experts.” Part of it is a real concern about the direction of society, anxiety and fear about sweeping social, cultural and economic change. 

Whatever happens to Trump this election, that “anti” feeling will remain strong. A majority of voters may be sick and tired of Trump, but his voters still yearn to make America “great” again – whatever that means to them.

My prediction is that this will be a good election for Democrats. They will get the chance to show America a new governing philosophy, one different from past Democratic administrations. But they should not ignore or overlook the genuine – and justified – concerns of Americans who turned to Trump.

Biden says he’ll be a President for all of us. If he’s elected, he needs to keep that promise. America needs healing.