I now want to take a look at North Carolina in my two-part series on the New South. The first article focused on the changes occurring in VA and its new-found status of being a swing state. This article will focus on North Carolina’s changes, suburban growth and possible purple instead of red leaning.
Much as Virginia had done before 2008 North Carolina had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964. In all the GOP presidential campaigns, good and bad, the state stuck with the GOP. That is until 2008. That year Barack Obama won the state by a mere 10,000 or so votes. Democrats knocked off incumbent US Senator Elizabeth Dole (R), wife of former Kansas Senator and presidential nominee Bob Dole, and claimed the open governor’s mansion.
Like in Virginia Obama and the Democrats victories were fueled by substantial minority and youth turnout centered in the Research Triangle, including the counties of Wake, Durham and Orange (Raleigh). Senate victor Kay Hagen actually ran ahead of the president in Southeastern North Carolina, padding her victory margins. But even with the wind at his back the president failed to convincingly win the state, unlike Virginia.
Though no exit polls were taken in the 2010 US Senate race or legislative races it is easy to see the state swing back to the GOP, just like Virginia did. In 2010 both chambers of the legislature (the House for the first time since Reconstruction) swung to the GOP. Incumbent Republican Senator Richard Burr easily dispatched his challenger, state Attorney General Elaine Marshall, 56%-43%. Burr and the GOP’s strength came in predominately rural areas of the state but it is worth noting the GOP that year also took an US House seat back based in the suburbs of Raleigh and Durham.
North Carolina has seen rapid demographic changes just like Virginia and unlike the rest of the South. Skilled immigrants have moved into the suburbs and urban counties of Wake, Orange and Durham. Each county boasts a large urban population and major university. In turn young voters increased leanings to Democrats has exponentially increased Democrats vote-share in the three counties. Democrats also have taken heart from the growth of the Hispanic population in the state. They have been able to add this onto the large African-American population in the state.
North Carolina’s rural areas are far more conservative and Southern than most of Virginia’s. White voters in the state from Appalachia have turned to the GOP in significant enough numbers to off-set Democratic gains in the urban and suburban counties of the Northeast. However, like Virginia, the GOP has advantages in suburban areas of the state, mainly around Greensboro and its ex-urbs.
Democrats hopes of North Carolina turning purple after 2008 might be exaggerated. North Carolina’s rural share of the vote is greater than that of Virginia. Unlike in the DC suburbs the Democrats do not have a built-in substantial advantage in the suburbs around Raleigh and Durham. And unlike in VA where Democrats do not need to rely on the youth vote to turn out to win in North Carolina statewide races they do.
Consider some numbers. In 2008 Barack Obama won the youth vote in the state with 74%. Hagen came in with similarly substantial margins. The youth vote was 18% of the electorate that year. Every other age group went for McCain by decent margins. Obama’s winning 10,000 vote margin can be attributed solely to the youth vote.
In Orange (Raleigh), Durham and Wake counties, then candidate Obama buoyed by the youth vote won each by 70% or so. Helped by large minority turnout the president dominated the East of the state. Everywhere else McCain dominated. Combined Raleigh/Durham and the East made up 38% of the electorate, Obama’s dominating performances in each fueled his victory. Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, also gave Obama 62% of the vote.
But Obama struggled with a key constituency in North Carolina. One he did not in Virginia, white independents. In Virginia, McCain won about 60% of these voters support. In North Carolina McCain won 84% of them. That is astonishing and shows Obama’s historic margins were almost overshadowed by weakness among this group. Hagen and Beverly Perdue, the Democratic candidate for Governor, performed much better among these voters.
Though no exit polls were taken of the 2010 race we can look at Democratic US Senate candidate Elaine Marshall’s margins in Orange, Durham and Wake to see how she fared to Obama’s performance from 2008. The answer, not well. Not only did they make up a substantially smaller chunk of the overall electorate compared to 2008 Marshall ONLY won Orange (Raleigh) and Durham counties. Burr actually narrowly won Wake County by about 3,000 votes. It is not hard to assume he did well because of the conservative leanings of many white independents in the state. In Mcklenburg County, where Charlotte is located, Burr almost ran even with Marshall, helping hold down any winning margin she could take from the county. She was crushed in the Charlotte and Greensboro suburbs.
These numbers paint a stark contrast between North Carolina and Virginia. Democrats do much worse among white independents in North Carolina as opposed to Virginia. They are substantially weaker in rural and ex-urban areas. And they do not perform strongly enough in urban areas to overcome these shortcomings. In short North Carolina’s new purple leanings might have been exaggerated.
Going into 2012 Democrats were still optimistic about their chances to hold the governorship, retake the legislature and win the state’s 15 electoral votes. Democrats even have their presidential convention in Charlotte. But maybe they were a little to optimistic.
Internal events have fractured the state Democratic party. The state party Chair was accused of laundering money. He has vowed to stay on as Chair but the damage to his party is deep. Republicans solidified their hold on the state legislature through redistricting, merging many suburban and rural counties to become GOP leaning. Governor Beverly Perdue (D) was so unpopular and polling so poorly against her likely GOP challenger that she decided to not run for reelection. National polls have shown the president performing poorly in the state with his base and independents.
And that excludes the 2012 vote on gay marriage. In May the state voted to add an amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage. The full power of the state’s socially conservative leanings (among blacks as well) was brought forward. It passed with over 60% of the vote. Obama had just recently announced he supported gay marriage. That won’t play well with an electorate that is heavily socially conservative and is increasingly voting that way. Even in the state’s expanding suburbs these issues hold sway with voters.
2008 was supposed to show that North Carolina was on the map for Democrats. But subsequent elections have shown it still leans red. This cycle the GOP is likely to win back the Governor’s mansion, hold the legislature and win two to three new Congressional districts (due to redistricting). Mitt Romney is likely to perform well in the rural areas of the state and suburbs. His moderate persona and business bonafides are likely to play well with young business people and women in Charlotte, Durham and Wake.
Beyond 2012 the state’s changing demographics are likely to be a draw. As Hispanics and young people grow as a share of the vote in the state older white voters are increasingly joining the GOP. Suburban voters remain evenly divided between the parties even around strong urban Democratic counties. For the next decade North Carolina could either become a purple state or start leaning even more heavily to the GOP. But if 2008 was an aberration than 2010 was the correction. North Carolina is no purple state, regardless of its New South potential, for it leans Republican still.