North Carolina Is the Center of the Political Universe as the State’s Demographics Shift Dramatically
Dan Merica, CNN, October 22, 2020
Donald Trump has a math problem in North Carolina.
The state the President won by more than 3 percentage points four years ago has continued its gradual political transformation, moving away from the red states to its south and toward its bluer neighbors to the north. The transformation has been propelled by a mix of factors: The state is growing more diverse with Hispanic and Asian immigrants, its cities and suburbs are booming with unbridled growth from northern transplants, older voters from the northeast who are fleeing Trump have retired to the state’s coast and the Tar Heel State’s once large rural population is shrinking.
This shift has been occurring for years, but it could present Trump and Republicans with a perfect storm of problems at the same time that the state has become the center of the political universe with close races for president, Senate and governor. And many of his diehard voters in rural Eastern North Carolina know it.
“We realize that we have been infiltrated by other people that have more liberal views… than we do,” Cheryl Miles, a Trump supporter, said as she stood in line in Williamston, North Carolina, with Greg, her husband of more than 50 years. “To me, it is important, as a Christian, that you need to go out and express yourself.”
Martin County, after twice voting for President Barack Obama, narrowly backed Trump in 2016, helping him cut into margins in the bigger metropolitan areas. Republicans in the area believe the same could happen this November, as Christian conservatives who were somewhat skeptical of Trump four years ago are now fully behind the Republican leader. But the county, like others around it, has been losing population over the last decade.
Williamston is just 90 miles to the east of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. That short physical separation represents a vast political divide.
The greater area around Raleigh, including college towns like Chapel Hill and Durham, is known as the research triangle, because of the topflight universities that are crammed into a relatively small area. Those institutions have not only attracted hundreds of thousands of more liberal voters to North Carolina, but they have provided the intellectual capital to fuel a growing technology and health care industry that has led to thousands of new jobs just over the last few years.
It was one of those institutions that brought Glen Almond and his wife Judith McLaren to Raleigh from Canada more than 30 years ago. The couple had been on green cards for decades, unable to vote in any election. But then Trump won, and the couple said shortly thereafter they became citizens almost expressly to vote against the President.
These divergent views explain why, just two weeks before Election Day, North Carolina remains a toss-up, according to multiple recent polls that find Biden with the narrowest of margins. But the differences between people like Miles and Almond also show the dramatically divergent paths to victory Trump and Biden have in a key state.
Obama, the last Democrat to win the state in 2008, carried North Carolina because of overwhelming turnout from Black and young Americans. Biden’s path, while similar, has some notable differences: In order to carry North Carolina next month, Biden will lean on a coalition that is Whiter, more suburban and older than the one that delivered the state to Obama 12 years ago. It’s a shift that reflects the changing state.
Trump, on the other hand, can’t solely count on the same turnout from Eastern and Western North Carolina, the two areas that propelled him to victory four years ago. The President will need people like Cheryl and Greg Miles to come up in such force that it overwhelms the growing suburbs around Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh.
“He is going to (need to) boost his numbers in rural counties to make up for what looks like an even bigger defeat in Raleigh, Charlotte,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College and an expert on the state’s politics. “I am just not sure how much more he can squeeze out of those rural areas.”
If there is one city emblematic of the political changes happening in North Carolina, it is likely Cary, a leafy suburb to the west of Raleigh with so many new residents from the north that longtime North Carolinians like to joke that Cary stands for “Concentrated Area of Relocated Yankees.”
One of those so-called Yankees would be Bridgette Hodges, an African-American grandmother who moved to the state from New Jersey around a year ago to be closer to her family, like Sanaa, her grandchild. The duo waited for over two hours on a recent rainy Friday so Hodges could not only vote for Biden, but register as a North Carolina voter for the first time.
“There are two groups we need to be focused on and that is turning out the African American vote and also suburban women,” said Meredith Cuomo, the executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party. “We have seen just a real shift in our demographics since 2016.”
One of those key changes has been a growing Hispanic community. The state has seen dramatic increases in the number of registered Hispanic voters, growth that has tracked with the overall increase — the state now has roughly 1 million Hispanic residents, up from around 800,000 in 2010.
To date, turnout seems high in North Carolina. As of this week, nearly 2 million ballots have been cast in the state early, a remarkable surge that represents 25% of registered voters.