Republican Donald Trump won North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes Tuesday night, beating Democrat Hillary Clinton in what was considered a crucial battleground state.
With more than 99 percent of the precincts counted, Trump had 49.92 percent to Clinton’s 46.11 percent. Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson had 2.72 percent.
Clinton did win big in Mecklenburg County, which has become a Democratic stronghold. With 193 of Mecklenburg County's 195 precincts reporting, Clinton led Trump 290,101 to 152,994 – roughly 62 percent to 33 percent.
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But North Carolina was a sea of Republican red as Trump carried virtually all of the suburban and rural counties outside the state’s big cities, including some that President Barack Obama won in 2012.
Trump’s margin of victory was almost 2-1 in counties neighboring Mecklenburg, including Union (63.17 percent for Trump), Gaston (64.11 percent) and Cabarrus (57.76 percent).
With pre-election polls forecasting a nail-biter in North Carolina, voters flocked to the polls in big numbers to choose between Clinton and Trump.
Between them, the presidential contenders made 29 visits to the coveted state, with its 15 electoral votes. They stepped up their appearances in recent weeks as a record number of North Carolinians – more than three million – took advantage of the opportunity to vote early.
The polls that forecast a close race and the targeted wooing by the candidates and their campaigns were testaments to the fact that North Carolina is a rapidly changing state – demographically and politically. That’s turned it into a battleground, pitting big cities vs. small towns, newcomers vs. natives, and Democrats vs. Republicans.
“Basically, in North Carolina, what you have is a contest between tomorrow and yesterday,” said David Goldstein, a historian at UNC Charlotte.
The Clinton campaign focused on its diverse coalition of women, urban liberals, minorities and millennials in the state. The former secretary of state and an all-star team of surrogates that included President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at college campuses and African-American churches in the New South cities of Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem.
Trump, meanwhile, staged some of his rallies in places like Concord, Selma in eastern North Carolina and the mountain town of Fletcher. At each, he drew large crowds of white working class voters angry at the loss of manufacturing jobs and eager to give him the chance to steer the country in a more conservative direction and deliver on that promise to “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s campaign also sent in surrogates, including the candidate’s daughter Ivanka and his son Eric.
In 2016, North Carolina became what Ohio was four years ago – the state considered such a tossup and so key to winning the White House that the presidential candidates practically camped out there.
State in transition
For decades, North Carolina, like most other Southern states, routinely voted for Republicans in presidential election years.
But that started changing as more and more people moved here, bringing their politics – often more moderate-to-liberal – with them. Major “sending” states included New York and Florida.
In 1980, the year Ronald Reagan kicked off a GOP winning streak in North Carolina that lasted until 2008, nearly 75 percent of the state’s eligible voter population had been born here. By 2014, the share of N.C.-born voters in the state had declined to about 54 percent.
That puts North Carolina close to the national average – 56 percent of eligible voters live in the state where they were born, “but it’s a big change for North Carolina,” said Rebecca Tippett, who directs Carolina Demography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It used to be that just about everybody was from North Carolina.”
Most newcomers move to the state for jobs, she said, and take up residence in metropolitan areas or on one of the military bases. And as a group, they tend to be younger, more diverse, more highly educated and more likely to register as unaffiliated – North Carolina’s word for political independents.
Between 2010 and 2015, Tippett said, 557,000 eligible voters moved into the state – two-thirds of them between the ages of 18 and 44.
This “influx of new people into North Carolina,” said Duke University political scientist Kerry Haynie, “has taken the state from a deep red to pink or purple.”
Translation: It’s now a state that’s up for grabs every four years, neither reliably blue (Democratic) nor red (Republican). The state went for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 – both times by narrow margins.
So, while North Carolina is changing, it’s currently poised between what it used to be (solid Republican) and what many political observers predict it will eventually become (Democratic-leaning, like its neighbor Virginia).
That appeared to leave the state with a competitive electoral landscape, said Tippett.
▪ On the one hand: Charlotte and Raleigh, both Democratic strongholds, are among the fastest-growing cities in the country.
On the other: North Carolina still has a larger rural population than many other big states. Nationally, 81 percent of U.S. citizens live in urban areas; in North Carolina, 66 percent do. As a group, rural and small-town voters in the state are mostly GOP voters.
▪ On the one hand: Charlotte and the Triangle are attracting many young professionals who register unaffiliated but often vote Democratic.
On the other: Retirees, many of them Republicans, also make up a significant portion of the state’s newcomers. They’re moving to Pinehurst, and to counties in the mountains and on the coast.
▪ On the one hand: North Carolina has become increasingly diverse, thanks in part to a growing Hispanic population that tends to support Democratic candidates.
On the other: The state is last in the country in the percentage of Hispanics who are voter-eligible. That’s because most of them are either first-generation immigrants who are not U.S. citizens or children not yet old enough to vote.
Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed
North Carolina results
Donald Trump, R 49.92%
Hillary Clinton, D 46.11%
Gary Johnson, L 2.72%
2702 out of 2704 precincts reporting.