If Roy Cooper holds on to defeat Pat McCrory for North Carolina's governor, it will be in large part because of voters who came out with that race – not the presidential race – as the driving factor.
Factoring out third-party or write-in votes, the North Carolina gubernatorial race received some 56,000 more votes than the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. By the same comparison, four years ago voters in North Carolina cast 76,500 fewer votes for McCrory and Walter Dalton combined than for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney combined.
Impacting these figures are the unusually large numbers who voted for a third-party or cast a write-in vote for president. In 2016, more than 185,000 North Carolinians chose Gary Johnson or wrote in a presidential vote, compared with one-third that many in 2012 and one-fifth that many in 2008. In both those elections, more North Carolinians voted for someone outside the major parties in the gubernatorial race in higher numbers than the presidential race.
While it's impossible to get in the minds of every voter, at least one North Carolinian blamed the loss of sporting events, especially college sports, as his reason for choosing Cooper. Nick Walters lives in Ocean Isle Beach and wrote in Roy Williams, the head coach of UNC basketball, for president. "I am a Republican who works in the tourism industry; the only reason I went to vote was to vote against Pat McCrory due to the money he lost our great state," Walters said Wednesday morning.
After Tuesday's results, Cooper held only the slimmest of leads – just 5,000 votes. Boards of elections around the state will now count provisional ballots and submit an official count of votes by late next week.
The tight race was evident around the state. In only four counties as a whole, Granville, Nash, Jackson, and New Hanover, did the vote split for Cooper and Trump. In other counties, certain precincts made the same split. In the Triangle, for example, two areas of rural western Orange County split, as well as areas around Holly Springs, Apex, and Knightdale. There was one north Raleigh precinct to split the ticket in support of Cooper and Trump.
Of course there are any number of reasons to split a vote between parties. Cooper ran as a challenger to an incumbent and Trump, while not running directly against an incumbent, was seen by many as the ultimate outsider.
Furthermore, North Carolina has a long history of picking the president of one party while electing a governor of the other. From 1980 through 2016, this state has picked the Democratic nominee only once: When it selected Obama in 2008. However, North Carolina has elected a Democratic governor in many of those years, electing only Jim Martin and McCrory in a long line of Democrats.
Said another way: Since 1980, North Carolinians have split the vote for a Republican president and Democratic governor six out of 10 times: 1980, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2016 (if preliminary results hold).