Republicans played on voters’ emotions. Democrats played it safe.

Many factors helped Republicans have a big election night in North Carolina, including having an advantage over Democrats in spending on key races, favorable legislative maps, and a president who is very unpopular here. 

But Republicans had one underappreciated advantage this year — and in past election cycles: the quality of their messaging.  

There are several qualities of Republican messaging that are worth noting. 

Republican candidates and strategists in North Carolina know their audience. Over the last decade, Republican campaign messaging has been remarkably consistent. In this election cycle, the basic message supporting candidates for the U.S. Senate, courts and legislative races focused almost exclusively on crime and inflation. These issues were top priorities, especially for Republican and unaffiliated voters in North Carolina. These issues were ones in which voters gave Republicans the advantage in handling. 

This understanding of who voters are and messaging directly to them has produced success. As Catawba University’s Michael Bitzer reports, registered Republicans outperformed those registered as Democrats and unaffiliated for every election cycle this century. 

Republicans also practice message discipline. In North Carolina, most successful candidates stick to their talking points. U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd’s public comments and advertisements rarely deviated away from attacks on the Biden administration for high prices and on Democrats, like Cheri Beasley, for being “soft on crime.” 

Other Republican U.S. Senate candidates around the country who lost, like Pennsylvania’s Dr. Oz, were much less disciplined and paid the price for it. 

Republicans in North Carolina who go off-message are punished, either by their own party or in the general election. Madison Cawthorn was defeated in the Republican primary for the 11th District nomination because he and his messaging was undisciplined. 

Bo Hines lost his 13th District general election bid, in part, because he did not stay on message. In an interview, he said victims of rape and incest seeking abortion should go through “a community-level review process outside the jurisdiction of the federal government.” Enough suburban women, even Republican leaning, may have heard that and helped Wiley Nickel win the swing district. 

Republicans also exploit the voters’ emotions. As the most recent Meredith Poll indicates, N.C. voters are more polarized and angry than in recent years. They do not believe that institutions and the politicians leading them are doing an effective job. 

Republican messaging uses verbal and visual images to make voters fear the future under Democratic leadership and policies. The messages attacking Democratic candidates like Beasley, the N.C. Supreme Court candidates, and many legislative candidates prominently featured stories about rapists and child molesters prowling the streets because of Democratic policies. 

The effectiveness of Republican messaging in North Carolina was further highlighted by the poor quality of Democratic messaging. 

Former Obama communications director and others wrote about Republicans winning the “message war’‘ in 2022. In N.C., candidates such as Beasley and Nickel chose a very safe rhetorical approach in their campaigns. Neither embraced their party or tried to scare voters into voting against Republican policy. 

During the last two weeks of the national campaign, former President Barack Obama demonstrated the power of going on the attack and motivating base voters. Unfortunately for Democrats, Obama’s messaging approach did not make it to North Carolina. 

The 2022 Republican messaging strategy worked effectively in North Carolina. However, the 2024 election cycle may test the effectiveness of this strategy, especially if Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is the party’s nominee for governor. Although he won statewide in 2020, the spotlight of the governor’s race will highlight his inconsistent messaging, especially his over-the-top divisiveness.

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