There are more than 6.5 million registered voters in North Carolina. Slightly less than 16 percent of them turned out to vote in Tuesday's primary.
Low turnout in non-presidential years — especially primaries — is nothing new. But, every time a state manages to coax a depressingly low percentage of people to the polls during primaries, it is a reminder of how few people control the options the larger electorate has to choose from on Election Day. And every time a non-battleground state manages to coax a depressingly low percentage of people to the polls during the general election, it is a reminder of how few people bother to take in politics writ large.
This is especially true during midterms.
During the 2010 general election — a cycle that notably shifted political dynamics nationally and at the state level — only 41 percent of voters cast a ballot. A majority of the voting public decided not to take part in the election, and the nation's politics decided to carry on without them.
Nothing seems likely to change in the 2014 election cycle.
There are currently 2.8 million registered Democrats in North Carolina. There are nearly 2 million registered Republicans. More than 1.7 million voters are Independents. In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney won the state with nearly 2.3 million votes. In 2008, President Obama won the state with more than 2.1 million votes — the first Democrat to win there since 1976.
The reason Obama was able to do that? North Carolina, a traditionally conservative state voting Republican in federal races and splitting its fidelity between moderate Democrats and Republicans in state races, is becoming increasingly diverse. The state's Latino and African-American population is growing, and young people are moving to the state for jobs and schooling. These new voters may have voted for Obama in 2008, but they haven't done much to change politics in house. Why? Because in midterms, the demographics that turn out still look a lot like the demographics that have dominated North Carolina voting for decades. They are older, they are whiter, and they are often more polarized than your average presidential election voter (To turn out in a midterm or a sleepy primary, you probably have a lot of opinions about politics).
In Republican primaries — like the one Thom Tillis just won yesterday — the voters who turn out are going to be further to the right than your average Republican voter. Many news outlets are calling his victory a win for the GOP establishment, but there is no doubt that Tillis was also a victory for more conservative coalitions of the Republican Party. During his time as speaker of the North Carolina House, he has led legislative battles against Medicaid expansion and abortion and for education cuts and voter ID. Tillis isn't proof of the GOP establishment winning. He's further proof of the GOP establishment experimenting with how far they have to shift to the right to win primaries and still have a viable candidate come Election Day, when the voter pool tends to moderate. On the presidential level, they experimented and failed with Mitt Romney and John McCain. On the congressional level, they've succeeded a few times ... and failed to go conservative enough in the primaries a few other times. It's also worth noting how much money it often takes to get primary voters to pick a candidate with the perfectly calibrated amount of conservative. Tillis and the outside groups supporting him spent nearly $3.5 million on this race.
Midterms make this balancing act a simpler affair — since the Democratic base is less likely to turn out, a more partisan Republican candidate isn't necessarily a handicap. That's one major reason the tea party could win in 2010, even accounting for the money being spent by outside groups and the natural advantage held by the Republican Party. The candidates who won primaries may have been more conservative, but so were the general election voters choosing candidates.
If the same turnout pattern evident in North Carolina yesterday holds the rest of the election cycle — and the young and diverse and independent voters who chose Democratic legislators in 2008 stay home — there's no reason Republicans' conservative calculus won't prove effective. However, the depressing turnout also means that they will likely need to try a new and untested formula come 2016, where the GOP establishment hasn't quite figured out what kind of candidate they want to label as their own if they want to win.