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The math behind the Charlotte mayor’s race

By Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Both Patrick Cannon and Edwin Peacock said Tuesday night after their primary victories that their race for mayor will come down to one’s vision for Charlotte versus the other’s.

I think it will come down to math.

Sure, voters want a bold vision from their potential mayor. But only a small number will base their vote on it. The majority will decide based on which letter – D or R – appears after the candidate’s name. And while no one likes to admit it, skin color will play a role too.

The question in political circles all week has been: Does the Republican Peacock have any chance? And: Can a Republican win a citywide race in Charlotte again?

Good questions, and natural ones after Democrats won all four City Council at-large seats in 2011 on their way to a 9-2 majority. Unknown Democrats beat well-known Republicans. Add Anthony Foxx’s upset victory over Republican favorite John Lassiter in 2009, and you have a Republican Party on the ropes.

But Republicans aren’t knocked out just yet. I dug into voter demographics and precinct-by-precinct results from the Foxx-Lassiter race to get a handle on Peacock’s odds. The upshot? Peacock has a chance, if everything goes right for him.

First, the demographics. Charlotte has about 517,000 voters – 50 percent Democrat, 27 percent unaffiliated, 23 percent Republican. So Peacock starts in a deep hole.

How deep? Let’s say all three groups turn out at equal rates. If Peacock wins all of the Republicans, 70 percent of the independents and 16 percent of the Democrats, he is at 49.9 percent of the vote and loses by a hair. If instead he wins 60 percent of the independents, he would need to win 21.6 percent of the Democratic vote.

That’s not easy – but it’s not impossible either. And the numbers change as turnout changes. If Republicans and independents turn out at higher rates, Peacock needs fewer independents and Democrats. If Democrats turn out more, Peacock’s road to victory becomes very steep.

Another lens to use is race. Cannon is black and Peacock is white. About 37 percent of registered voters are black, 53 percent white and 10 percent other. Because African-Americans tend to vote 90 percent or more for the Democrat, Cannon has a head start, with some 35 percent of the vote in hand (if voters of all races turn out at equal rates).

The Foxx-Lassiter race in 2009 is instructive, because it too featured a black Democrat and a white Republican running for an open mayor’s seat.

Much was made of Foxx winning heavily black precincts by laughable margins (1,037 to 3 in Precinct 16, for example). But dig deeper. In the 13 precincts that are 80+ percent black, Foxx won by about 6,000 votes. In the 52 precincts that are 80+ percent white, Lassiter won by 17,000 votes. So in the 65 precincts that are heavily white or black, Lassiter won by 11,000 votes.

It was in the racially mixed precincts where Foxx won the election. In those 101 polling places, 59,000 votes were cast. Foxx won those precincts by more than 14,000 votes, overwhelming Lassiter about 62 percent to 38 percent.

This is where the opportunity for Peacock lies. If he does as well (and as poorly) in heavily white and heavily black precincts as Lassiter did (and there’s no reason to think he won’t), he would need 40.5 percent of the vote in the “mixed” precincts, or just 2.5 percentage points more than Lassiter got there. Entirely possible.

It all suggests that Peacock needs to maintain his image as a moderate while not alienating his Republican base. And he could use a misstep or two from Cannon as well.

If that all happens and Peacock still loses? Then we write the Charlotte Republicans’ obituary.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.
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