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The Dive: A bellwether in the primary election, and a look at low voter turnout

A red sign which reads "Polling Place" staked in the lawn in front of the Pender County Hampstead Annex.
Nikolai Mather
One of the Pender County polling location during the 2024 primary elections.

Every week, WHQR's Ben Schachtman sits down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. This week, we broke down some key primary election results — and parsed some of the reasons for the lower-than-usual voter turnout.

This is an excerpt from The Dive, a free weekly newsletter jointly published by WHQR and The Assembly. You can find more information and subscribe here.

From this week's Edition of The Dive: A School Bellwether

It’s a truism that New Hanover County is a “purple” county–a roughly equal mix of Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters. But there’s another level of complexity within the politics of southeastern North Carolina if you look under the increasingly broad tent of the Republican Party.

Case in point: Michele Morrow’s strong showing here in the Superintendent of Public Instruction primary this week.

Morrow, a former nurse who homeschooled her five children, pushed conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines and election fraud during her run for the Wake County school board in 2022. Morrow lost that race, but garnered endorsements from the local GOP, Moms for Liberty, and anti-vaccine groups.

In her 2024 bid to lead the state’s public schools, Morrow attacked incumbent Catherine Truitt from the right. But Truitt’s no centrist; just last week she pledged she would “keep working to get woke politics out of our public schools,” and has boasted that she ended mask mandates and lockdowns in schools, “barred boys from playing girls sports,” and helped pass the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

But Morrow, whose right-wing bona fides include taking her kids to the January 6th rally in Washington, D.C. as a lesson in civics, went harder. Her supporters painted Truitt as a corrupt or inept bureaucrat, Thom Tillis’ “Republican in Name Only” candidate, or even, improbably, a tool of Gov. Roy Cooper’s “liberal agenda.”

Whatever you think of Morrow’s politics, you’ll be unsurprised to know she did well in Pender County, where it’s common to hear conservatives refer to the government as a “swamp.” Pender voters ousted all but one incumbent in local primaries on Tuesday, and embraced other populist conservatives–namely former President Donald Trump and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who ran five to six points higher there than their state-wide averages.

Morrow did less well in more moderate Brunswick County, where politics are tempered in part by migrants from northern states where “Republican” means something a bit different. Trump and Robinson were both down three to four points in Brunswick, the incumbents pretty much all held on to their seats, and Truitt eked out a one-point lead.

Then there’s New Hanover, where things get even more complicated. Trump and Robinson were both down four or five points, while Morrow was up five.

Out at the polls, I talked to several voters who learned about Morrow when she endorsed Natosha Tew, a local school board candidate who snagged one of three wins in the GOP primary. Morrow was also endorsed by Melissa Mason, the current school board vice chair. Voters told me they liked Morrow, Tew, and Mason for the same reasons–namely opposition to “woke” educational practices and “pornography” in schools, and support for parental rights.

This is, after all, the county where voters sent two very different types of Republicans to the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education in 2022.

When it comes to the levers of local government, voters tend to ignore candidates running on hyperbolic or outright fictional claims. Our county commissioner incumbents might have their distinct ideological bent, but they’re also, no disrespect, a little boring. But some overlapping bloc of voters also responded to candidates that alleged there was pornography and grooming in the schools, and who equated masking with Nazi tyranny and social emotional learning with socialism.

We’re no doubt seeing this phenomenon, for better and worse, because parents’ concerns for their kids can both cut through their political apathy and expose them to political manipulation.

It’s also, I think, because it is getting more difficult to parse New Hanover as just some measurable mix of red and blue.

Find more, including Johanna Still's breakdown on voter turnout, here.

Benjamin Schachtman: All right, Johannea Still. Thanks for being here.

Johanna Still: Thanks for having me.

BS: Okay, on this week's edition of The Dive, we were talking about the 2024 primary election.

JS: Really, what we've seen across the state is an embracing of more, I guess you could say, radicalized candidates. And so we've got this, what you've called a school bellwether, the GOP nominee for the Department of Public Instruction. So basically, the person who will oversee the system of public schools across North Carolina is a candidate who did very well in New Hanover County, which maybe is surprising. What was your kind of take on this?

BS: Yeah, we're talking about Michele Morrow. She's not a traditional candidate. She ran for, I believe, Wake County school board two years ago. And she posted a lot of 2020 election conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine stuff, she picked up a lot of support from Moms for Liberty, and groups like that. And she did a pretty good job defeating incumbent Catherine Truitt — who is not a centrist. I mean, just last week, Truitt was posting about, you know, keeping transwomen out of women's sports in high school, and helping to write the Parents' Bill of Rights. But Morrow was able to sort of outflank her on the right. And what's interesting about her performance here in New Hanover County, is that former President Donald Trump and Mark Robinson, the current lieutenant governor, who's running for governor, both further-right populist candidates, didn't do as well in New Hanover County as they did statewide. But Michelle Morrow did better here in New Hanover County than she did statewide. So a county that's kind of less accommodating to further-right populist candidates, for whatever reason is embracing Michel Morrow.

JS: And on a statewide scale, of course, the embrace of Robinson is showing a trend of really the battle of the Trumpiest. And so, so far, what we're seeing is, that is definitely something that voters are embracing, which you point out and these trends do differ. So you point out in Pender County, unsurprisingly, Morrow did very, very well, but didn't do as well, in Brunswick County, where we've got a lot of transplants, a lot of people from the north where there's a slightly more moderate brand of Republicanism going on.

BS: Yeah, exactly. And I think if you look under the hood, there's a lot of different kinds of conservatism going on there. Another thing we look at this week, is just how many people got involved or didn't get involved in this primary election here in North Carolina.

JS: Right. So voter turnout is usually you know, going to be lower during the primary: what you're voting on doesn't have an immediate result, that person isn't exactly in office. So it's a little bit tougher to choose to participate in the primaries. So typically, that's going to be lower. However, this is a general election year. So you've got you know, these big, big names —Trump, Biden — on your ticket, so you can vote. So general elections usually have a higher turnout than your normal primary election season cycle. But when you consider general election primaries, which is what I tried to look at, this year was pretty low for that. New Hanover County turnout was 22% of registered voters who showed up. So that's slightly lower than the state's rate of 24%. And it's a lot lower than the previous general election cycle primary, which was in the 30 percentile. You know, it could have been a lot worse, I believe that Mecklenburg County, which is of course, super populated county in North Carolina, more so than New Hanover, they were a little bit worse than us, 19%. But I talked to a political science professor at UNCW, Aaron King, and he sort of speculated, that this slate of candidates, there wasn't all that excitement happening. There was this perception that Trump was already chosen, right. Nikki Haley wasn't doing as well, you know, she had just been losing a little bit of steam. Biden is running unopposed. So if you're someone who is drawn to the polls by those big top-ticket items, maybe you thought, what's the point? Now, of course, King would argue there's a huge point in doing that. When you vote on down-ballot candidates, of course, like we mentioned, your school board, there's a much higher margin. So your vote is going to quote-unquote, count more, you can have a lot bigger, say in your local elections or your statewide elections even but, yeah, voter turnout, not so great. And something that King said to me, which I think is really interesting is when you've got less than a quarter of your registered voters showing up that can't be ideal.

BS: Yeah, I think one of the things we've committed to as journalists is supporting democracy. So when people aren't turning out for democracy, it's a little disheartening,

JS: But to defend those who didn't show up. It does make sense because it's pretty hard to research and do all the homework and figure out who's who. King said that sometimes these partisan labels can act like a shortcut. So if you see a ballot, you see Rs and Ds, you know kind of which team you're going to choose if you don't recognize the name. And sometimes there's so many names on the ballot, like, for instance, with Lieutenant Governor, there were 10 people running. 'What are you supposed to do with that,' is sort of the reaction that you may as a voter have thought. People can attempt to do some of the homework for you, put some voter guides together. But even still, at the end of the day, King said he himself had had a tough time of figuring out the candidates and figuring out which ones he wanted to choose. So voter apathy, you know, it's disappointing. Yes, but in a lot of ways, it does make sense.

BS: Yeah, fair enough. Fair enough. But you can check out your story and a deeper dive into what happened here in New Hanover County with the Superintendent of Public Instruction race on The Dive. But for now, Johanna, thanks for being here.

JS: Thank you.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.