North Carolina, like most of the country, has become increasingly polarized in our political thinking and behavior. But what does that really mean?

Well, we know it doesn’t mean that all North Carolinians are so rigidly partisan they support only candidates of one major party or the other. Split-ticket voters do make up a smaller share of the electorate than they did generations ago. They’re rarer. That doesn’t make them extinct.

Consider the 2016 election cycle. Donald Trump won North Carolina with 49.8 percent of votes cast for president. At the same time, Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship narrowly with 49 percent to Republican incumbent Pat McCrory’s 48.8 percent — even as Democrat Josh Stein was elected as attorney general with 50.3 percent, Republican Richard Burr as U.S. senator with 51.1 percent, Republican Dan Forest as lieutenant governor with 51.8 percent, Democrat Elaine Marshall as secretary of state with 52.2 percent and Republican Steve Troxler as agriculture commissioner with 55.6 percent. 

It’s true that not every North Carolinian who voted actually marked a preference in all these races. Most did, though. There were Trump/Burr/Forest voters who picked Cooper over McCrory — enough to tip the race. There were Hillary Clinton supporters who also picked Troxler, padding his margin of victory.

In a more polarized atmosphere, Democratic and Republican campaigns do tend to focus more on turning out their base than trying to persuade undecideds, as the latter group is small and often disconnected from news consumption and the political process. However, North Carolina’s electorate is both polarized and closely divided. Just a percentage point or two of split-ticket voters can be the difference between winning and losing.

Moreover, while there is some debate about this among political scientists, I think the best-available evidence tells us that some of those split-ticket voters are also strategic voters.

That is, they aren’t very ideological. After all, if they were, they’d probably be reliable Democrats or Republicans. Instead, these swayable voters are interested more in leadership qualities and judge political candidates in context. And they aren’t crazy about either major party controlling all the levers of government.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis made a clear pitch for this small but potentially decisive group of North Carolinians in a recent Politico interview. While stressing that he continues to believe Trump can and should be reelected, he argued that even voters inclined to choose Joe Biden should consider voting for Tillis at the same time.

“The best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate,” Tillis said. “And I do think ‘checks and balances’ does resonate with North Carolina voters.” 

Cal Cunningham, for his part, has tried to distinguish himself a bit from the rest of the Democratic ticket, emphasizing his background and keeping the focus on Tillis’s record rather than trying to defend Biden’s. (Now the rest of the Democratic ticket is trying desperately to distinguish themselves from Cunningham, for a different and obvious reason.)

There’s a similar dynamic at play in the state treasurer race between Republican incumbent Dale Folwell and Democrat Ronnie Chatterji. Endorsed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina, Folwell is actively cultivating crossover voters who may favor Democrats in other races but appreciate his efforts to reduce costs in the pension system and health plan for teachers and state employees. 

Polarization has pros and cons. You might see it as “truth in advertising.” With nearly all conservatives identified as Republicans and nearly all progressives as Democrats, it makes it easier for ideologically minded voters to cast their ballots intentionally, particularly in down-ballot races where voters know little about candidates other than their party affiliation. 

On the other hand, polarization can make it harder for legislative bodies to produce coherent policies that won’t be vetoed by executives, be they presidents or governors. Neither Washington nor Raleigh has produced regular government budgets for years, as an example.

Whatever you think of it, however, polarization hasn’t yet hunted split-ticket voters to extinction. They still matter — and candidates know it.

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John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN."

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