The waves of moderates and independents who've moved here have made this a battleground state, one that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has a chance to win, pollsters say. That's a massive shift for a state where Sen. Jesse Helms used race in 1990 and 1996 to beat Senate seat rival Harvey Gantt, Charlotte's only African American mayor.
But many of today's voters weren't even here then.
An Observer analysis of county voter registration records shows more than half of Mecklenburg's eligible voters registered after 1999.
Newcomers “have everything to do with," the state being in play, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill.
Republican political consultant Dee Stewart disagrees. N.C. is a battleground, he said, because Obama has outspent Republican John McCain and is ahead of him nationally.
Obama “is running further ahead than the Democratic nominees in 2000 and 2004 and some of that is spilling over into North Carolina,” Stewart said. Another factor, he said: “The economy is not performing well right now with a Republican in office.” Still, he believes the state's conservative roots are strong and McCain will win here.
Influx from worse economies
People have flocked to North Carolina because of better job opportunities, leaving behind places where the economy has been worse off, such as the Midwest and Florida. Charlotte's big banks have also drawn transplants from the Northeast, a traditional Democratic stronghold.
Last year, Florida and New York delivered the most newcomers, while three Rust Belt state – Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania – placed in the top 10.
Newcomer Fran Walshin, of Davidson, says she got out of Florida just in time – three years ago when she could still sell her house. But it's not all rosy here, she said, noting that as a job recruiter she meets lots of “devastated” professionals.
“We got in trouble and now we need a new outlook to get us out of this problem. You can't speak to the same people to get us out of this mess,” said Walshin, who's in her 60s and will cast a ballot for Obama.
A close race
Until now, North Carolina had been a politically predictable state – one that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected. In 2004, President Bush won the state by 12 percentage points over Sen. John Kerry and N.C.-raised running mate John Edwards.
Polls showed McCain and Obama were running neck and neck in North Carolina two weeks before the election. McCain has visited the state twice and Obama has been here four times. Both vice presidential picks have made multiple visits. And both campaigns are flooding the airwaves with ads.
Newcomers – 263,000 last year – aren't the only reason N.C. is in the election spotlight.
The Democratic Party here has held huge voter drives targeting African Americans. Then, there are economic and banking woes. The state was late to the slowdown but is now feeling the effects of slumping home prices and rising unemployment. The recent collapse of home-grown, Charlotte-based Wachovia Corp. is yet another reason for people to be on edge about jobs and the future.
Tina Gerbino, 39, who moved here two years ago from Long Island, N.Y., cast her early vote for Obama. It was her first time voting. Her issue: the economy. Soon after moving she lost her job, and her husband can get only part-time hours at his.
The economy is also why Aileen Kirby, 41, who moved to Davidson two years ago from Atlanta, voted early for McCain.
“I talk to people all the time and it is a huge concern. They might lose their job, and there is so much uncertainty,” said Kirby, a stay-at-home mom originally from New Jersey. “We have definitely had to tighten up and watch our spending.” Soon after Kirby and her family moved, husband Patrick lost his job. He is now commuting to Greenville, S.C. as marketing director for Michelin. The family will move there eventually.
Both women agreed, however, that North Carolina has gone from red state to toss-up.
That's because of the kind of newcomers the state is attracting, said Guillory of UNC. In the 1980s, he said, transplants tended to be white suburbanites. They skewed Republican or socially conservative Democrats, so-called Jesse-crats for the late senator from North Carolina.
“But now we are getting more creative workers. We are getting young families, both black and white, and they come here and they want good hospitals and schools and a bike path and clean water,” Guillory said. “They want the kind of amenities that government helps provide.”
They also are moving to urban centers, namely Charlotte and the Research Triangle. And it's the state's biggest counties that have increasingly favored Democrats, Guillory said. In 2000, Bush won 12 of the state's 15 largest counties. In 2004, Bush claimed just six.
Even if they are not Democrats, new residents tend to be moderate, the kind of voter either party could persuade, said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist in Raleigh.
“They support education. They have kids in schools a lot of time. They are more concerned with the environment,” he said.
But that's not all newcomer Brandon Dye, 32, is concerned about. He moved to Gastonia in February from Newport Beach, Va. after completing service with the Navy.
Dye, a medical products salesman, will vote for McCain on Nov. 4. His reasons are “across the board.” “You have abortion, immigration, the Second Amendment. You can pretty much throw anything out there,” he said. He also believes in smaller government.
Larry Portnoy, 75, a transplant two years ago from Scottsdale, Ariz., voted early for Obama. His retirement savings have been cut in half in the past year. His kids struggle with their own family economics, too. The native New Yorker says Obama brings energy the nation needs.
“I look back to when Kennedy became president. He was up against Nixon. He was young and new blood. I see similarities to what people are looking for,” Portnoy said. “They want to wake up the next day and see their life is going to be better.”
Both candidates promise change. What few dispute is that change is what makes North Carolina a surprise battleground this year.
Guillory said: “It is because the state has been so dynamic over the last few decades that Barack Obama has a chance.”
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Database Editor Ted Mellnik and reporter Peter St. Onge contributed.