North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, joined by his wife Kristin, reacts after being declared winner over Republican Dan Forest in the governor's race in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. State election officials certified the governor's race and most in the state Tuesday, Nov. 24. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Election 2020 Governor Cooper
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, joined by his wife Kristin, reacts after being declared winner over Republican Dan Forest in the governor's race in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. State election officials certified the governor's race and most in the state Tuesday, Nov. 24. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper outperformed most NC Democrats in the 2020 election. There is a lesson in this for the party.

“Roy Cooper is a unicorn,” a close friend of mine told me.

Now I’ve met the governor a number of times, and not once did I notice a horn or any rainbows. 

What my friend means, of course, is that Cooper sets a standard for electoral success that’s unrealistic for any other statewide office-seeker on the Democratic side.

My friend is involved in NC Democratic politics, but here’s the problem with that view: Winning statewide office as a Democrat with 51.5% of the vote is solid.  But if no one else can hope to approach that standard, the implication is that only luck allows Democrats to win statewide.

I look at it differently. Cooper shows us what is possible.

Voters who support Cooper tell us that they’re willing to favor a Democrat. His Republican supporters — and there are many — tell us that they’re paying attention because they go out of the way to find him on the ballot. 

Running Like Roy: Where To Find Additional Cooper Voters for Downballot Dems
Graph by Matt Leatherman

I think that’s most of what we need to know. It’s our candidates’ job to meet these folks where they are, let them know that we care about them, and include them in our vision for the state.

Roy Cooper isn’t a unicorn. What he represents is the high-water mark, at least for now, and the wave that he rides is there for anyone to see in the electoral data. 

Cooper wins with the breadth of his appeal.

Are Democrats leaving votes on the table?

Votes that he got, and other Democratic statewide candidates didn’t, clearly are available to earn. For our challengers — those running against an incumbent or for an open seat — roughly half of those potential votes come from counties anchored by or surrounding the most recognizable cities of our state, and roughly half do not.

Candidates would have to outpace Cooper in urban areas to win just on a get-out-the-vote strategy, and they’d at least have to match him vote-for-vote in other areas to win just on a swing-voter strategy. Neither is realistic because down-ballot races will never keep full pace with the governor’s.

Cooper shows that down-ballot Democrats running statewide have to appeal broadly, and the foremost strategy question facing them is: “What portion of your resources are you going to put on getting out the urban vote, and what portion are you going to put on swaying swing rural voters?”

This is not a question of preference for candidates. It’s a question of efficiency.

Running Like Roy: Potential Additional Cooper Voters for Downballot Dems
Graph by Matt Leatherman

Communicating with rural voters by mail appears to be the central efficiency. The cost of mail is far more scalable than the go-big-or-go-home rates for television ads. And repeat contact by mail can cut through the noise well enough for these voters to notice the candidate and the message.

That matters. We can win votes in these places. Cooper shows us which ones.

This in no way means ignoring the base in urban areas or neglecting get-out-the-vote efforts there. Again, Cooper’s lesson is breadth, including strong showings in cities. What it does mean is that down-ballot Democrats who are running statewide — and who want to win — cannot exhaust their financial resources in our state’s urban counties.

This is a strategy of running “rural in.” Win as many potential votes identified by Cooper in rural areas as possible with very efficient communication by mail, put the rest on winning the potential votes that Cooper has found in urban areas on get-out-the-vote … and buy tv ads only if you go into the general election with well over $1.5 million in cash on hand.

Let me recognize a point that is vitally important. Cooper has shown us how many votes we could be getting, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be easy or equitably available. The name recognition that comes with being on the state ballot over twenty years is invaluable. The megaphone that his fundraising affords him is out of reach for down-ballot candidates. 

Being an affluent, older, straight white man conveys privileges beyond those of anyone else. That includes fundraising and the willingness of Republicans to cross the aisle in voting for him. 

Expecting anyone without this history, platform, and privilege to match Cooper vote-for-vote is not reasonable. But neither is treating Roy Cooper as a unicorn because that amounts to preemptive surrender. 

Democrats can win statewide races by a percentage point or two, not just a few thousand votes, and the candidates who want to win will take advantage of the opportunity Cooper demonstrates for doing so.

* The categorization of counties in this analysis reflects my own judgment. “Urban” counties are Buncombe (Asheville), Cumberland (Fayetteville), Durham, Forsyth (Winston-Salem), Guilford (Greensboro), Mecklenburg (Charlotte), New Hanover (Wilmington), Orange (Chapel Hill), Pitt (Greenville), and Wake (Raleigh). “Suburban” counties are Alamance, Cabarrus, Chatham, Davidson, Davie, Gaston, Harnett, Iredell, Johnston, Nash, Randolph, Rockingham, Union, and Yadkin. The remaining 76 counties are “rural.”