“Guns, gays, gynecology, and God.”
It is easy to boil the politics of North Carolina down to a neat list of hot-button issues. In an interview with The Politic, Jake Fender ‘18, a native of Asheville, NC, cited those four topics as the lens through which the media often covers the state. But he believes this coverage clouds the true spectrum of voter opinions. North Carolina is perplexingly unpredictable, he says, and outsiders ought to look more closely at the state that refuses to pick a side.
What is it we fail to see about North Carolina? The partisan rifts covered by the media create the perception that North Carolina is caught between two opposing crosswinds. At first glance, social issues seem to trump all: laws like House Bill 2, passed by the state legislature and known informally as the “Bathroom Bill,” dominate public discourse and present a North Carolina fractured along ideological fault lines. But the state’s politics are far more hazy than voters and politicians alike once believed.
Fender contended the state’s unexpected ideological diversity was most evident after the passage of House Bill 2. The immense opposition from both sides of the aisle formed a new coalition of voters who could defy their party affiliations for the sake of repealing the Bathroom Bill. Democrats are especially hopeful that the discriminatory law will motivate North Carolina residents to vote Democratic down the ballot, if only to remove incumbent Republican governor Pat McCrory from office. But they may overestimate the weight of social issues in an election where economic policies matter more to many voters.
The political suspense of the presidential election has hit North Carolina residents hard. The state is no stranger to electoral flip-flopping, but recently, its defining characteristic has been erratic voting trends caused by independent voters. This alone, however, cannot explain why Obama won the formerly Republican state in 2008 but not in 2012, or why North Carolina’s election forecast nervously blinks red, then blue, then red again. All of the nail-biting and fretting over North Carolina begs the question of why the state is at the forefront of the nation’s political consciousness.
North Carolina’s history explains much of its recent political tensions. Years ago, the state had a reputation as a symbol of Southern progressivism; instead of adopting the low-tax economic strategies of its neighbors, it invested in public works projects and infrastructure. The North Carolina university system is a byproduct of such investments. Similar progressive inclinations pushed President Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 — and yet, in a striking political shift, he lost the state in 2012, two years after Republicans took control of the General Assembly. In 2013, Pat McCrory was elected governor.
North Carolina is vital this year for GOP nominee Donald Trump, whose path to 270 electoral votes most likely depends on winning Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. The former three states have voted persistently Democratic since 2008, making North Carolina the wild card. Hillary Clinton’s path to the presidency, however, does not depend on winning North Carolina. But a Clinton victory in North Carolina would show hope for the promise of progressivism in the state.
And the Clinton camp may have cause to be optimistic. Despite the conservatism that many consider a hallmark of North Carolina politics, a Gallup poll reports that the state is 41 percent Republican and 42 percent Democrat—one of the most politically balanced states in the country. These numbers do not make predicting the outcome of the presidential election any easier. They do, however, imply that each candidate has a chance to capture the state that can’t seem to make up its mind.
In this election, rural and urban mindsets play a large role in candidate preference. The divide between between these two demographics is evident in economics, culture, and politics. In an interview with The Politic, Dr. Rebecca Tippett, the director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center, said that North Carolina has the largest rural population in any state except for Texas.
“We definitely see that some of the poorer areas are ones that have been fairly hard hit by the decline of manufacturing and of tobacco, which is a major industry. These tend to be rural areas,” she said.
Trump’s rhetoric has proven effective in his campaign’s efforts in these regions; he appeals to rural manufacturing communities whose residents feel sidelined by federal policies and, ultimately, have little faith in the government.
“Donald Trump has been capitalizing on people who wouldn’t have been voting in the past and who are voting now,” said Fender.
Rural support of Donald Trump is less ideological and more retaliatory. As Democrats applaud the economic growth under the Obama administration, many low-income rural voters feel estranged from the current president’s socially progressive legacy. Economic recovery continues to favor urban areas as residents of the small towns and mountain regions of North Carolina watch their paltry wealth disappear as industry falters. In this election cycle, North Carolina’s Trump supporters are propelled by the aftermath of a liberal promise fallen flat, reflecting the national mood of those feeling angry, resentful, and abandoned.
While the rural coalition backing Trump in North Carolina is quite dependable, Hillary Clinton’s backers are far more hesitant in their support. Her supporters are urban voters: a diverse coalition of wealthy white liberals and low-income voters of color.
Urban regions in North Carolina are booming. Charlotte is one of the fastest growing large cities in the country, and its proximity to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte attracts young professionals, academics, and wealthy liberals. In an interview with The Politic, Max Schlenker ’20, who hails from Boone, North Carolina, suggested that Democratic voters are centralized within these big cities, where university students strongly favor the Clinton campaign.
“The research triangle is a hyper-liberal space,” said Schlenker, referring to the second-most metropolitan region in North Carolina, after the city of Charlotte.
Although this urban expansion works to the Clinton campaign’s advantage, the state’s recent development is also linked to a rise in poverty among poor urban populations, who are disproportionately of color. Schlenker noted the palpable racial divides in North Carolina cities. In places like Durham, residents of color live in predominantly divided communities, largely as a result of de facto housing segregation and uneven income distribution.
It is usually under these conditions that the Democratic Party’s outreach has resonated most powerfully. Clinton relies on support from poor voters of color in urban areas, voters dissatisfied with the Republican Party and with Donald Trump’s lack of attention towards communities of color. As uneasiness about urban policing methods, affordable housing shortages, and welfare cuts culminate in powerful protests, even more is at stake for minority voters.
North Carolina’s cities will be crucial for the Clinton campaign in the weeks before the general election. With this combination of poor urban voters of color and wealthy liberals, Clinton could wield a powerful coalition against Trump. To attain these ends, the party has also expanded their Democratic Coordinated Campaign. This political strategy relies on the notion that, if campaigns can get voters to vote for local Democrats down the ballot, these same voters will be more likely to write Hillary Clinton’s name in at the top.
But the path to electoral victory in North Carolina will not be easy for Clinton. She is faced with the daunting challenge of voter registration. In an election cycle where a Democratic win hinges on high turnout among underrepresented voters, North Carolina’s long history of voter disenfranchisement poses a significant hurdle for the Clinton campaign.
“Obviously she [Clinton] is going to capture really urban areas. That’s kind of a given. But the question is whether people are going to show up to vote,” Fender told The Politic, with anxiety in his voice.
He is not exaggerating. Many voter groups are all but non-existent in the North Carolina political arena. Hispanic and Latinx voters, one of the fastest-growing populations in the state, are drastically underrepresented on the voter rolls. North Carolina is nine percent Latinx, and yet a shockingly low 2.1 percent of the Latinx population is registered to vote. Harnessing the voting power of this group would be instrumental to a Democratic win, especially in this election, where Donald Trump’s rhetoric has driven the Latinx vote to the left.
However, Schlenker, whose mother participated in an effort to register voters and increase turnout on election day, suggested that intimidation tactics – intentional or not – often deter Latinx voters from going to the polls.
“In small towns with one polling center, it can be intimidating for people with little or no English skills to enter the county courthouse to place their vote,” said Schlenker.
The geographic distribution of North Carolina’s Latinx residents is relatively even across rural and urban areas; if they vote, they may offset Donald Trump’s lead in rural counties. In many communities, people encourage families with non-English speakers to fill out write-in vote forms in lieu of voting in person.
However, the culture of voter repression still prevails. After the 2016 Supreme Court decision to strike down discriminatory voter ID laws in North Carolina, such tactics may seem surprising, but expected. Ultimately, Clinton’s performance in the state may depend on mobilizing a population just beginning to emerge from a legacy of political disenfranchisement.
The impact Latinx voters will have at the polls this election cycle remains uncertain. No one knows how North Carolina will swing. At the time of publication, the electoral predictions map shows the state engulfed in red when, only days before, the state inched nearer to blue. The outcome is just too close to call.
Correction: October 14, 2016:
An earlier version of this article contained a sentence that misrepresented Dr. Tippett’s findings on the primary economic industry in the Eastern and Western parts of the state. Tourism is an important economic sector in counties across the state, not merely on the East Shore. We sincerely apologize for the error.