This week, StrongerNC hosted Dr. Marilynn Baker, an expert in strategic analysis who has spent the last several years analyzing voter trends in NC and the reasons why our very purple state has gradually been stained a deep shade of red. Her conclusion? While gerrymandering is certainly a critical issue and big cause for concern, it is not the only cause.

In Dr. Baker’s analysis, she looked at statewide races, which are not gerrymandered since there are no districts, from 2000 through 2016. Most of the NC counties voted blue in the Governor’s race in 2000, moving to a majority red by 2016. This has been a national trend, not just here in NC.  Nationwide, the Governorships in other states have followed a similar pattern, and when you look at the NC Council of State, Republicans have doubled the number of offices held from 2004 to 2016.

To understand why this trend was happening she looked at party affiliations over time. From 2008-2016 NC saw a 9% increase in voters, but a 32% increase in Unaffiliated registrations. So now, while Democrats still hold a majority of the voter registrations, the three key segments (Democrats, Republicans and Independents) are much more evenly matched. This information has been apparent for some time, but as you read through her presentation you will see which pockets of voters are critical to determining the results of the next election. (Hint: the younger crowd and suburban moderates are key)

When looking at how NC voters perceive their political ideology, 35% consider themselves “moderate”, in other words, conservative on some issues and progressive on others (aka “swing voters”).  Only 22% of NC voters identity as Liberals, while 43% identity as Conservatives. Over the past decade, Conservatives have grown at the expense of Moderates.  In the 2016 Presidential election, NC had more moderates (and some conservatives too) that voted for Clinton over Trump. This is the target audience for changing the outcome of future elections, in addition to a strong GOTV campaign by the Democratic Party.  

Further analysis is offered on these swing voters. When asked to rank issues by order of importance, these came out on top: Economy, Jobs, Healthcare, Social Security, Taxes, Education, Medicare, and Crime. Further down on the list of importance came Terrorism, which ranked higher than the Environment and Infrastructure! Not surprisingly, the identity politics of gender, race, sexual orientation and abortion rights were at the bottom of the list.

When discussing a candidate’s or party’s stance on issues, the discussion needs to be turned into one of values, with a moral importance assigned to them. This is the message at the foundation of George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant. The Republican party, conservative media and Trump especially, have used framing exceptionally well over the past decade. Their ability to frame a message by using repetition, storytelling, adjectives and metaphors has struck a chord with moderate voters nationwide, regardless of how false the narrative may be. Mainstream media has certainly, if unwittingly, played into their hands by repeating their words over and over and over again.

The Democratic party and all progressives must combat this degenerative epidemic with a message of our own. First and foremost, we must not repeat the terms used by Republicans as they tell their story. Instead, we should re-state the truth, followed up with facts and more repetition. Lakoff’s advice to Democrats?

  • Stay respectful in the face of attacks;
  • Start conversations with discussions of values and not issues or data;
  • And avoid identity politics, which focuses on specific groups. Recognize that identity politics consists of issues which should be re-framed to discuss the supporting values which benefit ALL, rather than focusing on a specific group. After all, not many people will deny that this country is built on the promise of equality, freedom and justice for all.

The best way to implement these ideas is through storytelling. Dr Baker provides some great examples of the GOP’s story about the American Dream, and how certain people are “cutting the line” and getting in the way of others. This resonates with many people as framed by Trump and other Republicans. More recently, the GOP and Trump have been sending false messages such as: “We are people who love. We are people with heart. We are people who endure. We are people who are great.” Another twisted claim is that across America “…our movement was built on the conviction that every American from every background is entitled to a government that puts their needs first.”  We need only respond with the truth that a failing public education system, lack of Medicaid expansion, elimination of Healthcare coverage and many more examples refute this narrative completely. They are claiming the story that the Democratic party needs to be telling, and if we are too late to the starting block then we lose again in 2018 and beyond.

What can you do? Read Lakoff’s works, and some of the other recommended resources at the end of Dr Baker’s presentation. Then contact your local precinct organizers and share the information, since it will be the stories told while canvassing for candidates that reach the voters directly. Practice writing and talking about values instead of issues. And let your Democratic representatives know that this needs to happen at all levels of the party in order for us to move forward and turn NC blue again. Take back the story and we’ll take back the state.