North Carolina: Anatomy of a political swing state

North Carolina took a long journey from political obscurity to the national spotlight

By Ferrel Guillory
Special to the Observer

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. North Carolina’s emergence as a presidential battleground state is a reflection of change that is rooted in demographic, social and economic shifts.

Once viewed as falling below the norm in many national comparisons, North Carolina’s mixture of civic and economic strengths and weaknesses now are more in keeping with mainstream America. The state has become less a lagging and more a leading indicator of national issues and trends.

In the 40 years since Richard Nixon carried the state with ease in 1972, North Carolina ended a long era of Democratic dominance and took a leading role in the rise of Southern Republicans.

As recently as 2004, presidential campaigns did not purchase a single prime-time advertisement in North Carolina, marking the state as a sure-win for Republicans on the road to the White House. But four years ago, Democrat Barack Obama picked up the state’s 15 electoral votes by outperforming Republican John McCain in both the political ground war and TV air war.

And this year, well before the Democratic National Convention’s arrival in Charlotte, the campaigns of both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney targeted North Carolina as one of the nine states where the campaigns have purchased time for TV commercials.

How is it that the North Carolina electorate can seem to go both ways?

The state’s political twists and turns of the past four decades came amid dramatic population growth and shifts, sometimes hard-fought decisions on racial and cultural arrangements, and an economic transition that destroyed old-industry jobs while creating high-skill enterprises.

Demography: Population swells

In 1972, North Carolina had a population of 5.1 million; now the state has nearly 9.7 million people. Mayberry RFD and “Tobacco Road” serve to define the past, not the present and future.

The 2010 Census put North Carolina’s 10-year growth rate at 18.5 percent, ranking it 10th in total population and sixth in growth among the 50 states.

A population explosion of that magnitude takes movement of people from elsewhere. And North Carolina has grown as a result of three powerful flows of humanity: well-to-do whites from other states, blacks returning to the South in a reversal of the great out-migration of the mid-20th Century, and Latino and Asian immigrants drawn by job opportunities.

North Carolina continues making a transition from a biracial to a multi-ethnic society. Now 65 percent of North Carolinians are non-Hispanic whites, 22 percent blacks, 8.6 percent Hispanic, and the rest Asian, American Indian and people who report themselves of two or more races.

Population growth, naturally, has brought a huge expansion of the state’s electorate – from 2.4 million registered voters in 1972 to more than 6.3 million today. Whites represent 72 percent of all voters, larger than their share of the population. Blacks account for 22 percent of registered voters, identical to their share of the population. Latinos are only now emerging into the electorate – 96,700 registered voters, or barely 1.5 percent of the today’s electorate.

The state’s politics have been shaped not only by the scale of growth but also by its geography. North Carolina remains a spread-out state /dotted with small towns, but increasingly people have clustered in metropolitan areas. Of the 1.5 million people added to North Carolina from 2000 to 2010, fully one-third of the growth occurred in the two counties – Wake and Mecklenburg – that are home to the two biggest cities, Raleigh and Charlotte.

Together, the Democratic presidential victory in 2008 and the Republican capture of a state legislative majority in the 2010 elections highlight an apparent shift away from long-standing North Carolina patterns. In the 1970s and 1980s, population growth bolstered the GOP, as suburbs ballooned with mostly white professionals and business managers who brought their Republicanism with them into North Carolina.

While holding onto suburban districts, the Republican Party picked up rural legislative seats in 2010 that used to serve as bastions of Democratic legislative strength. The top 20 counties in which Republicans had voter-registration gains from 2000 to 2010 included suburban counties like Union and Johnston and such rural counties as Camden, Granville, Jones and Chowan. Republicans have gained ground in majority-white rural communities, while Democrats prevail in majority-black rural districts.

The center of gravity in the Democratic Party now rests in the core counties of the state’s major metro areas. The Democratic legislative minority has a distinctly metro tilt. This development is consistent with evidence from the 2008 elections: Obama carried North Carolina in large measure by winning 334,000 more votes in the state’s three major metros than Democrat John Kerry had four years earlier.

An early August survey by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling provides evidence that newcomers have kept Democratic candidates competitive. Long-time residents – who have lived here more than 30 years – give Romney a 10- to 14-point lead. Obama, however, leads among residents here 30 years or fewer. Among those here no more than 10 years, Obama leads by a stunning 39 points.

As the electorate has swelled, North Carolina politics has become increasingly nationalized. New voters bring their partisan allegiances, cultural attitudes and life aspirations with them. The state’s history still matters in the way long-time citizens vote, but many voters don’t necessarily know that history – presenting a challenge to candidates and office-holders who seek to build upon the policy decisions and public investments that contributed to the state’s growth.

An example of that challenge lies in school desegregation efforts in both Charlotte and Raleigh. Newer voters have no memory of the efforts that went into making busing orders succeed 40 years ago, and so there is pressure to leave behind those efforts even if doing so allows resegregation.

Economy: Up and down escalators

Like Americans elsewhere, North Carolinians tell pollsters that “the economy” is the top-most issue in this election year. That’s easy enough for a voter to say, but not so easy for candidates to address in North Carolina. In fact, the state’s economy seems moving in two directions at once, both up and down.

Two recent reports by TD Economics, the global economics analysis arm of the TD Bank Group, give the up-escalator view of North Carolina’s economy. “North Carolina flexes its economic muscle,” says the headline in a June 2012 report on regional and state economies. The TD Economics analysts specifically cite “high-value sectors,” such as finance and professional services, and renewed construction, in concluding that North Carolina “is already outperforming the nation, and it is well-poised to widen that margin in 2012 and 2013.”

A more extensive case study of North Carolina’s industrial transition, published by TD Economics in June 2011, documented the steep fall in jobs in “matured industries,’’ like textiles and apparel, while pointing to growth in computer, electronics, pharmaceuticals and medicine manufacturing.

The down-escalator view comes in measurements of joblessness and poverty. The two economic recessions over the past decade hit North Carolina hard, slowed its economic momentum and knocked more people into destitution after a period of declining poverty rates.

The state’s unemployment rate remained above 10 percent for more than a year, and the current 9.4 percent rate is a percentage point higher than the national rate. The state’s poverty rate, which had declined to around 11 percent in the late 1990s, jumped to 17.5 percent as a result of the recession.

Of the 1.6 million North Carolinians living in households with income below the official poverty line, children account for one in four.

As its economy diversifies, North Carolina illustrates both the creation and destruction brought on by an economic transition. For example, in the early 1970s, the state had around 250,000 people employed in textiles; now it has barely 28,000. Meanwhile, North Carolina has become a national center of biotechnology, along with its strength in computer and electronics, financial services, auto parts and food processing.

In 1974, the state had 44,000 mostly small tobacco farms that produced 714 million pounds of leaf. The most recent agricultural census counted a mere 2,600 tobacco farms producing 365 million pounds. North Carolina remains the No. 1 producer of tobacco, but No. 1 simply doesn’t count for as much as it once did. In a state where tobacco once was king, it now ranks fourth in commodities cash receipts. Broilers (chickens) rank one, hogs two, and a category including greenhouse, nursery, floriculture and Christmas trees ranks third.

The economic movements, up and down, have left North Carolina, like the nation, with wider gaps between urban and rural, between the high-skilled and the low-skilled. TD Economics observed growth in both low-skill and high-skill jobs, with middle-skill jobs declining, creating greater economic inequalities.

Insight into income inequality comes from federal tax data. Nearly seven out of 10 income tax returns filed in North Carolina in 2008 reported annual income under $50,000. Slightly more than one out of 10 reported income of more than $100,000.

North Carolina confronts both jobs-quantity and a skills-mismatch issues. For many former manufacturing workers, new jobs require new skills and perhaps a move to another community. Thus, many North Carolinians have ended up out-of-work for a long period or forced to trade a modest-wage manufacturing job down to an even lower-wage job in services or retail. With a high school education, or even less, an N.C. worker used to be able to land a steady manufacturing job. That same education now lands a job as a clerk, with less security and less pay.

Still, the state remains so attractive that new residents continue to arrive, even while the economy is not producing jobs fast enough to keep up.

Politics: It’s about values

The politics of North Carolina are a public expression of the values held by its people, with party lines evolving over time.

Republicans and Democrats today consist of coalitions with their own views on faith, business and the government’s role on race. The fastest-growing segment of the electorate consists of voters who register unaffiliated. Of the state’s 6.3 million registered voters, 1.6 million are unaffiliated; and election-day exit polls since the 1990s have found that one out of four voters declare themselves independent.

But most of the unaffiliated voters are not free-floating politically. In actual practice, they tend to reliably vote with either Republicans or Democrats.

Before 1972, North Carolina had small but hardy clusters of mountain and business-oriented Republicans. The party regularly held “Lincoln Day” dinners, in which the faithful within a county would gather for a meal to celebrate their values. Mountain GOP loyalists were descendants, either as family or political partisans, of the independent white folks who resisted joining the low-country plantation elite in fighting the Civil War and wanted to remain in the union under Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s first Republican president.

The GOP’s growth accelerated in the aftermath of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. Under Nixon, the Republican Party followed a Southern strategy to feed the flight of white Southerners away from the Democratic Party. That strategy came to fruition in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The late Sim Delapp of Lexington, who had served as state GOP chair in the 1940s, reflected in a 1974 interview for a magazine article on the GOP Southern strategy on how the minority party he had worked so long to sustain had emerged triumphant in statewide races.

“The leadership hasn’t brought this party to where it is now,” he said. “I can tell you what’s brought it – and any man that knows politics knows. The race question brought it. The Democratic Party leaned towards the liberals and the dissident elements of the population so much that North Carolinians got tired of it and came over to us.”

Also feeding the growing GOP coalition were Christian conservatives who had previously avoided electoral politics. Rounding out the Republican growth has been the flow down the interstate highways of business-oriented people from Northern states driving into North Carolina to take advantage of the “new South” economy, including its anti-union climate and cheaper labor costs. Now county Republicans celebrate at Lincoln-Reagan Dinners or, in some cases, simply Ronald Reagan Dinners.

In North Carolina, Jesse Helms, a major Reagan supporter, had a profound influence on reshaping the state Republican Party. His arch-conservatism – featuring white-hot rhetoric on abortion, homosexuality and civil rights – pushed the GOP further to the right. In political circles, the thousands of people who crossed party lines to vote for a candidate who they felt represented their social and cultural values came to be known as Jessecrats.

The modern Democratic coalition has featured white political leaders who have worked toward racial reconciliation and advocated public school reforms, while also keeping in tune with the state’s cultural conservative through tough-on-crime measures.

These Democrats formed alliances with business and civic leaders, including occasionally with Republican-leaning executives, on behalf of modernization and diversification of the state’s economy. They have increasingly used government-funded incentive packages to recruit industry.

Over a 40-year span, the Democratic Party has been a biracial coalition; despite occasional frictions with white Democrats over redistricting and social issues, the black political leadership has remained an integral part of the Democratic coalition.

This bi-racial, pro-education, pro-business coalition was held together by former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, who served as his party’s principal bulwark in the face of Republican advances. Despite his loss to Helms in the titanic 1984 Senate race, Hunt served four gubernatorial terms – 1977-1985 and 1993-2001 – by drawing from and replenishing the let’s-make-progress stream of North Carolina political thought and action. That stream subsequently propelled the elections of Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.

A presidential battle

In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton targeted North Carolina in the general election; he won the White House but he lost the state by less than a percentage point to then-President George H.W. Bush.

In 2004, candidate John Kerry picked Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate, but Edwards’ home state gave 56 percent of the vote to President George W. Bush.

In 2008, North Carolina joined with two other Southern states – Virginia and Florida – in giving their electoral votes to the nation’s first black president, a man without a Southern accent.

So how did the Obama campaign pull off a victory in North Carolina, a state that Southern white candidates Clinton and Edwards could not?

Part of the answer comes in the state’s robust population growth that provided Obama with an infusion of fresh voters. Part of the answer also was the aggressiveness – especially in raising money – of the 2008 Obama campaign. His extraordinary campaign-finance advantage allowed him to create more potentially swing states. In effect, the Obama campaign gave North Carolina a push into becoming a battleground state.

The uncertainty that now hangs over North Carolina politics is thick. Which represents the emergence of a trend: the Democratic victory of 2008 or the Republican comeback in 2010? Redistricting by the GOP-majority in the legislature has fortified Republican advantage in congressional and legislative elections. A return to 2008’s record-setting turnout would favor Obama, and perhaps offer coattails to Democratic statewide candidates.

In the battleground that is North Carolina, the electorate appears as divided and polarized as the nation’s. The state mirrors the nation in having a fundamental debate over the terms of the social contract and the scope of government.

The political landscape of North Carolina – defined by its metro areas, with too-high unemployment and poverty, yet still attracting new residents – offers neither party the prospect of a comfortable long-term ascendency. With an electorate divided nearly half-and-half, the state is poised for another close race. In state races as well as the presidential election, a narrow majority will decide between candidates representing political value systems with distinct visions of the future.

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