All you have to do is drive around – or sit in traffic – to see how newcomers have literally changed the landscape of the Charlotte region. They’ve also changed its politics.
North Carolina is a different state politically than it was two decades ago, even a decade ago. And that change is felt as much in the Charlotte area as anywhere.
Take presidential elections.
For more than 30 years Jimmy Carter was the only Democratic candidate to carry North Carolina. That ended in 2008 with Barack Obama. He narrowly won the state that year, and narrowly lost it four years later. Enough to color North Carolina purple, and put it solidly in the ranks of swing states.
Ferrel Guillory put his finger on a big reason for the change. He’s a political analyst and researcher at UNC Chapel Hill. Analyzing data from 2004 to 2012, he found that voters born elsewhere have come to make up nearly half the state’s electorate.
Most came from Florida, Virginia, New York, South Carolina and Georgia, though Pennsylvania, Maryland and California weren’t far behind.
The influx has coincided with the rise of political independents. They now make up 27 percent of the state voters. There are now nearly as many independents as Republicans.
All that’s helped make the state increasingly competitive in presidential races.
But like population growth itself, political changes have been unbalanced, with far-reaching effects in state and local politics.
Newcomers have generally flocked to cities. Guillory found that Mecklenburg, Wake and four other counties saw gains in the number of unaffiliated voters of 100 percent or more.
At the same time, Democratic numbers jumped in Mecklenburg, Wake and other urban counties, fed in part by the migration of African Americans back to the South. Republican registration, meanwhile, grew faster in suburban areas such as Union and Cabarrus counties.
In the General Assembly, representation has continued to shift to urban areas. Mecklenburg and Wake each have 10 Senate seats – 20 percent of the 50-member body. You see the same pattern in the House. Speaker Thom Tillis, for example, is from suburban Mecklenburg. Key lieutenants are from cities or suburban areas.
Republicans won the General Assembly in 2010 and used redistricting to help them keep it in 2011. Now the legislature should be in GOP hands at least through 2020.
While the state is in the hands of Republicans, cities have become more solidly Democratic.
By the 2010 census, Charlotte’s non-Hispanic white population had dipped below 50 percent for the first time. Half the city’s Republicans now live in just two southeast City Council districts. White voters, 77 percent of the city’s total in 1983, accounted for 53 percent in 2013. Black voters, then 20 percent, grew to 37 percent.
Charlotte, which for 22 consecutive years had a Republican mayor, has had a string of Democratic leaders (four in the past year, but that’s another story). And the city council, which once flip-flopped between parties, has a 9-2 Democratic majority and will for the foreseeable future.
African American voters once had a hard time getting elected citywide. Now they have a disproportionate voice in city and county politics. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, more than 60 percent of Democratic voters are black.