On Nov. 4, 2020, the eye of the constantly moving political storm shifted to the 59,425 square miles that make up the state of Georgia. Not only did Georgia surprise political observers by giving its 16 electors to Joe Biden on Nov. 3, but thanks to quirky runoff rules, and a nationally competitive environment, majority control of the U.S. Senate was ultimately determined by voters in the Peach State.
Georgia was generally considered a “second tier swing state” prior to the election, as opposed to North Carolina, which was generally considered one of the states most likely to swing. After the votes were counted, a series of articles soon appeared attempting to explain why Georgia “flipped blue” and North Carolina “stayed red.”
The red state/blue state dichotomy made famous by Tim Russert rests on the importance of the winner-take-all electoral college system. As a reflection of that system, it is certainly a helpful heuristic and can tell us at a quick glance where the state’s electors are headed on election night. The primary color reference point tells us much less, however, when it comes to divining the expressed will of the people. And in 2020, the expressed will of the voters in North Carolina and Georgia were virtually identical.
Of all of the states colored red on the map, Donald Trump’s two-party margin of victory was the smallest in North Carolina. Conversely, of all of the states colored blue on the map, Joe Biden’s two-party vote share was the smallest in Georgia. Said differently, in 2020, Georgia was the reddest blue state in the country and North Carolina was the bluest red state in the country.
In the 2020 election, North Carolina gave 49.9 percent of its two-party vote share to Donald Trump compared to Georgia, where 49.2 percent of its two-party vote share went to the Trump—a difference of only 7/10th of a percentage point.
After North Carolina, the state where Trump eked out his next smallest victory was Florida, where he won 51.1 percent of the two-party vote share — 1.1 percentage points greater than his share in North Carolina. When compared to the .7 percentage point difference between North Carolina and Georgia this means that the will of the voters in North Carolina and Georgia (a red and a blue state) were closer than North Carolina and Florida (two red states).
The skeptical reader may think I’m splitting hairs – after all, regardless of the closeness of the states, Joe Biden “won” Georgia and “lost” North Carolina. And, if the point of the breathless speculation is simply to describe which side of the razor’s edge each state fell on in November 2020, then the red/blue dichotomy works.
It is more problematic, however, when people attempt to use the terms to define the will of the people in each respective state and the political futures of the states moving forward.
The reality of presidential politics in 2020 is that North Carolina and Georgia are both poised at the middle of a divided country. They are both purple states that, as Stacy Abrams so adroitly demonstrated, can be nudged from one side of the razor’s edge to the other if the political winds are blowing in the proper direction and if influential political entrepreneurs invest the time and resources into affecting the result.
Chris Cooper is Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University.