Mac McCorkle is a professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He was recently named the director of POLIS: Center for Politics, which sponsors Duke Votes.
The Chronicle spoke to him about his perspective on the 2020 election in North Carolina. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: Other than the races for Governor and U.S. Senate, what are some of the hottest races this election season in North Carolina?
Mac McCorkle: Well, there are two congressional races. Most people think that the Democrats will pick up two seats, one in the Raleigh area and one in the Greensboro area given the new districting map.
The most competitive congressional race is District Eight. Richard Hudson is in there now as a Republican. Then, second of all would be the Moe Davis and Madison Cawthorn race in Asheville. I mean, that is still a very strongly Republican district but less so than before. Col. Davis seems like a very strong candidate with a good background and Cawthorn, who is controversial to say the least, is very young and so I think that is kind of the second competitive race.
There is a Republican running for the state Supreme Court—Paul Newby is running to challenge Cheri Beasley for the state Supreme Court chief justice position. Cheri Beasley is the chief justice right now. So those are the ones I know of.
TC: Looking at the North Carolina General Assembly at the state level, what is the overall trend in polling considering elections for the General Assembly? Will the Republicans regain their supermajority? Or do you believe the Democrats might have a chance at gaining a few more seats?
MM: I don't know that anyone thinks that the Republicans will regain their supermajority. A lot will depend on the presidential race. If Trump loses North Carolina, if things break towards Biden, and especially if you see a big win by Gov. Roy Cooper in comfortable double digits, you could see maybe one of the houses flip or even both, but it would have to be a very good year for Democrats.
The Democrats and Republicans—now after 2018, the Democrats have their seats and the Republicans have theirs. There are not that many up for grabs. People point to the one in Alamance County, and there's maybe still one or two to pick up in Wake County or Mecklenburg County. But the issue for Democrats has been what I would call these exurban counties that are metropolitan, they are not small town rural, but they are near a big city. For example, Union County, Cabarrus County, Gaston County, Johnston County, where the Republicans have been winning 60% or more.
If those start to slip, then that vote becomes more metropolitan, more like what Charlotte and Raleigh are like and what Wake is becoming. If you saw some seats flip there, then you can see the Democrats take over. But I think people are thinking it's kind of an outside shot, given that it seems like the presidential race is close. The irony is that Governor Cooper may win going away, because people view Governor Cooper as doing a good job [handling the pandemic].
And the Democrats are stronger at the statewide level than they are at the state legislative level. One reason is because of the gerrymandering legacies of what the Republicans have done. A second reason is that Democrats tend to win their seats by larger margins, and thus their vote is wasted in that sense. You will see especially a lot of African Americans where Democrats win by 90%. Well, you know, you only need 51% to win. So, Republicans still have some advantages at the legislative level that do not add up to the executive statewide level advantage.
TC: How does the COVID-19 pandemic expose the underlying risks that affect every election cycle?
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MM: I do not know that people thought before that it was risky being a poll worker, but I think a lot of people now are concerned. So, you know, it could have a huge impact. We will just have to see whether it suppresses voter turnout, or whether with all the innovations going on with mail-in voting, we actually have a surge. I saw that over 600,000 requests came in for mail-in ballots in North Carolina.
TC: On that conversation of voter turnout, what are your predictions for voter turnout in this election. Do you think we'll see a drastic increase in voting by mail?
MM: Yes, we will see a drastic increase of voting by mail. Whether that results in a larger aggregate turnout I think is anybody's best guess. In other words, we have physical in-person early voting starting Oct. 15, we have mail-in voting, so there are a lot more ways to vote. Given the pandemic and people's concern about [voting], it could dampen overall turnout. We just don't know.
TC: Do you believe the Trump administration's threat to the U.S. Postal Service and the overall rhetoric threatening the validity of mail and voting will have an impact on the overall voter turnout?
MM: It could, even if the mail system is able to handle the increase in mail despite the cutbacks. A lot of this, I think, is rhetoric on President Trump's part, as part of his kind of chaos strategy to make people feel like this is going to be really hard, it is really confusing. He is trying to just kind of dampen the voter turnout by just making things sound confusing and complicated. Even if it turns out that there's not really that much of a problem, he may succeed in convincing people to say, “Ugh, I’m not doing this.”
TC: Do you think that voter suppression will play a role in the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, and if so, what is a modern form of voter suppression going to look like this year?
MM: Well, I think we're seeing President Trump try a new form, which is using his bully pulpit to sow confusion and discord in people's minds about what they should do. So, this is a new form of voter suppression, you know, there might be in Southern states in the closing days, we've seen other ways of trying to confuse people and scare them about voting. And so I think we may see some of that too, you know, like, “Oh, watch out, you know, you may be against the law. You know, “You might not be able to vote the way you think you do.” But we usually see that in the closing days.
For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote North Carolina, a collaborative between The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.