North Carolina’s latest poll numbers have me thinking about coattails. That is, how one candidate on the ballot helps or harms his or her partisan running mates.
A bit of history: After the Reagan landslide of 1980, North Carolina Democrats, who still controlled state government, started seeing presidential coattails differently.
Until 1968, North Carolina had dutifully sent its electoral votes to the Democratic presidential candidate every year since Reconstruction had ended – 1928 being the one exception. And down-ballot Democrats had enjoyed the coattails for a century.
By the early 1980s, however, North Carolina had gone Republican in three of the previous four presidential elections, twice for Richard Nixon and then for Ronald Reagan, and the 1972 Nixon re-election landslide had carried in the state’s first Republican governor of the century and a U.S. senator named Jesse Helms.
Democratic Party leaders and key legislators toyed with moving races for governor, lieutenant governor and other Council of State offices to the off-year, when state Republican candidates would not benefit from coattails provided by the GOP’s presidential candidate.
The idea gained some legislative support after Jim Martin twice won election as governor, in 1984 and 1984, which were also years of GOP landslides for president, Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and George H.W. Bush’s 1988 win.
But all such talk ended when Jim Hunt returned to politics and won the governor’s office back for Democrats in 1992.
What Hunt had shown, and what Mike Easley would also demonstrate, was that state Democratic candidates could win even when the state went Republican for president and that strong Democratic gubernatorial candidates served as a firewall to the Republican surge.
That firewall, of course, depended on a significant core of Democrats and independents willing to vote Democratic in the state.
Even in the great Republican year of 2012, when North Carolinians elected Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and heavy majorities of Republican state legislators and congressmen (the latter two groups benefiting from partisan gerrymandering), voters elected six Democratic members to the Council of State to only four Republicans.
All of which raises questions of where the down-ballot vote will go this year. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are essentially tied in the polls, but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper is enjoying a 3.6-point lead over Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, according to the Real Clear Politics rolling average.
Eight months ago, I wrote a column – thank goodness it only appeared in Chinese – that said Trump might work as a drag on McCrory. Now it appears something quite different might happen, that Trump could win North Carolina while McCrory lost his bid for reelection, most likely the result of unpopular state legislation he supported.
So what way do the coattails work in that case?
Does Cooper help Democrats win back the lieutenant governor and labor commissioner offices, a dozen or so seats in the General Assembly and maybe N.C. Supreme Court control?
Or does Trump grow in strength, carry the rest of the GOP ticket and maybe even McCrory?
Four weeks from Election Day, all of this is very unclear.
Paul T. O’Connor writes about state government and politics.