The biggest political fight in the city this time last year was over raising the sales tax a quarter-cent to fund the arts. Quaint times, right?
Those in favor of it put a million bucks toward a marketing campaign, and those who opposed it raised about $25,000. The small money won, and voters turned it down.
On Election Night, in a rare bipartisan moment, several influential Democrats gathered with the local Republican core at Selwyn Pub. Within an hour of the polls closing, they knew their side had won.
They got all the information they needed from a single deep-blue precinct: 16. The East Stonewall AME Zion precinct covers an area around Beatties Ford Road just north of Interstate 85. It’s almost exclusively a Democrat precinct, so when the numbers came in and showed that it voted against the tax 54-46, every political observer in Charlotte knew it was over.
I recently talked to Republican strategist Larry Shaheen and Democratic strategist Dan McCorkle, along with a few local politicians, to see which precincts they’ll be watching this year.
North Carolina is a swing state, and national pundits say that what happens here may decide the presidency and Senate. So if North Carolina is one of the most telling states in the country, and Mecklenburg is one of the most telling counties in the state, here are the most telling precincts in Mecklenburg.
If you watch no other coverage on Election Night and just look at the results from Mecklenburg precincts 16 (Beatties Ford Road area north of I-85), 69 (Old Providence), and 127 (northern suburbs), you’ll have a pretty good idea who won.
Precinct 16 — East Stonewall AME Zion Church, West Charlotte
What it tells us: Black turnout
Registered voters: 3,324
By party affiliation: 81% Democrat, 2% Republican, 17% Unaffiliated.
By race: 88% Black, 3% white, 2% Hispanic
What to look for: Total votes. Democrats typically receive more than 90 percent of the vote in this precinct in the historically Black Beatties Ford Road corridor. It’s the precinct that includes Friendship Missionary Baptist, one of the largest Black churches in the city.
Hillary Clinton got 96 percent here in 2016. But that number masked the more important truth that few people showed up.
Barack Obama hauled in more than 3,700 and 3,900 votes from precinct 16 in his two elections; Clinton had just 1,908 votes here in 2016.
“It’s the same precinct map,” Shaheen said. “That’s just straight turnout drop and lack of enthusiasm for Clinton.”
Prediction: The closer Biden can get to 3,000 votes in this precinct with 3,300 or so possible votes, the better his chances. If he doesn’t get much more than 2,000, he’s in trouble.
If you’re a Biden supporter, you should be driving around knocking on every door in this precinct on Tuesday.
Similar precincts: Precinct 25, West Charlotte High School, has 2,894 registered voters. It’s 83 percent Black and 74 percent Democrat. Obama pulled nearly 3,000 votes here in his two elections; Clinton had just 1,355.
In other words, Clinton lost nearly 4,000 total votes in precincts 16 and 25. She lost the state by about 173,000 votes overall, so a full 2 percent of the difference was sitting here in these two precincts along Beatties Ford Road.
Precinct 69 — Olde Providence Elementary, south Charlotte
What it tells us: What moderate Republicans are doing about Trump
Registered voters: 4,596
By party affiliation: 38% Republican, 37% Unaffiliated, 25% Democrat
By race: 81% white, 5% Black, 2% Hispanic
What to look for: Percentage of Trump voters.
The Olde Providence precinct is the classic precinct for Charlotte’s “wedge,” or the affluent slice of southeast Charlotte (think: SouthPark, Myers Park, Arboretum). It’s long been a Republican stronghold. Mitt Romney soundly defeated Obama at Olde Providence in 2012, 61 percent to 38 percent.
But Trump put a damper on GOP enthusiasm here. From 2012 to 2016, overall turnout at Olde Providence fell from 4,246 to 2,927 votes, and Romney’s 2,595-vote showing dwarfed Trump’s 1,451.
An even sharper rebuke of the president came two years later in the midterms, when Democrat congressional candidate Dan McCready carried the precinct with 56 percent of the vote — just six years after Romney’s 61 percent.
What the GOP strategist says: “His (Trump’s) unpopularity with college educated white men and women is killing him in these precincts. And it’s killing him and Republicans up and down the ballot.” — Shaheen
Who else needs it? Olde Providence will likely determine whether there are any Republicans on the county commission board, too. Matthew Ridenhour, who held the District 5 seat until 2018, is running for it again against Democrat Laura Meier. He lost the seat by a 51-49 margin in 2018 to Susan Harden, who’s not running again. The other day he issued an appeal to Republicans to turn out.
Prediction: A Biden victory here would send a message that the “blue wave” of 2018 is now a 2020 phenomenon, too. It would also be a sign that the old-school version of the Republican Party in Mecklenburg County — back to when work-across-the aisle folks like former mayor Richard Vinroot led the party — has now essentially gone Democrat.
Precinct 127 — Hopewell Baptist Church, Davidson
What it tells us: The swing vote of the suburban unaffiliated
Registered voters: 5,382
By party affiliation: 40% Unaffiliated, 37% Republican, 23% Democrat
By race: 86% white, 3% Black, 2% Hispanic
What to look for: Red or blue.
Trump has spent much of the past two months courting “suburban women.” In his appeal, he says that he’ll keep things like “affordable housing” out of their suburban neighborhoods, and won’t let the protests and unrest from cities creep their way.
Most analysts and pollsters say the message is old and ineffective, especially in a year where we saw suburban women help lead Black Lives Matter protests in small towns all across the region.
Still, areas like this are considered the “last battleground” of North Carolina. In other words, Trump has the rural areas deep red, and Biden has the urban areas deep blue. So what happens here, in the space between?
This precinct pulls in portions of east Davidson down to Huntersville around River Run Country Club.
That would’ve been almost unthinkable two years earlier, when Bradford defeated his Democratic opponent by nearly 6,000 votes. Precinct 127 was one of those that went from red to blue.
Bradford and Clark are running against each other again this year.
How it’s going so far in 2020: Well, 4,140 people have already voted in this precinct, a staggering number. The only recent presidential election in which more people voted was 2012 (4,298). This will undoubtedly soar past that on Tuesday.
What’s it mean, though? That year, it meant lots more Romney votes. This time? It’s hard to tell.
The largest group of early voters carried the unaffiliated flag. As of the end of in-person early voting on Saturday, unaffiliateds accounted for 1,622 votes, Republicans had 1,480, and Democrats had 1,017. How will those unaffiliated votes go?
Prediction: If Trump loses what was once a solidly red precinct 127 — heck, even if it’s 50-50 — he’s lost the suburbs. And if he loses the suburbs, you can almost be sure Biden wins the presidency.
One more for the road — Robeson County
If all of those precincts fold in favor of Biden, Trump still has one big last hope for North Carolina.
“The theory is,” Shaheen says, “for every vote Donald Trump loses in urban and suburban areas they are gaining two in rural communities.”
To know whether that’s happening, look to Robeson County.
What to look for: Blue voters going red.
Robeson County has about 75,000 registered voters: 42,500 or so are registered Democrats and 11,800 are registered Republicans. In 2016, those numbers were 50,748 for Democrats and 9,559 for Republicans — so an 8,200 or so vote drop for Democrats and a 2,300 or so voter jump for Republicans.
One of the key figures in that increase is Republican Congressman Dan Bishop. In 2019, while running for Congress in a do-over race against Dan McCready, Bishop expressed support for full federal recognition for the Lumbee. The largest American Indian tribe east of the Mississippi with more than 55,000 members, the Lumbees have been seeking such recognition for more than a century. It would grant them land in trust, and allow them, as a sovereign nation, to have gaming such as casinos.
Support from the tribe helped Bishop break through against McCready in 2019; he actually came within a percentage point of winning the county.
Biden came out in support of recognition earlier this fall, and Trump followed with an announcement of his support a few weeks later. But many people who live there are extremely loyal to Bishop now, and Bishop is a ride-or-die Trump supporter.
Prediction: Typically, only 40,000 or so of Robeson County’s 75,000 registered voters participate in presidential elections. Trump visited Robeson County last week, and he’ll spend his final morning of the campaign today in Fayetteville, a city just one county north. He needs to hoist turnout up to 45,000 to 50,000 people to verify the theory that he’s picking up two votes in rural areas for every one he loses in Charlotte.