GovernorBev Perdue (D)
SenatorsRichard Burr (R)
Kay Hagan (D)
- 8 D, 5 R
- 1 through 13
In the first decade of the 21st century, North Carolina emerged as one of America’s leading-edge states, with a booming demography and vibrant culture that are in many ways typical of the way the nation was going—or wanted to go. North Carolina had the third-largest-percentage population increase in 2008, trailing only Utah and Arizona (and tying Texas and Colorado), and also experienced the biggest percentage increase in turnout in the 2008 presidential election. Four decades ago, few people picked North Carolina as a state that would chart a path to the future. It had no great central city, no Atlanta primed to become another Los Angeles or Chicago, but rather a series of small metropolitan areas spaced out over thickly settled countryside. It did not have what seemed to be cutting-edge industries. The biggest employer was textiles, typically an underdeveloped nation’s first industry, and the next two were stolid furniture and soon-to-be-disfavored tobacco. Geographically, it seemed to be off the nation’s main lines of commerce, and meteorologically, it was too steamy to be businesslike in the summer and too cold to be a resort in the winter. Yet North Carolina has emerged as one of America’s leading growth states. Its population nearly doubled from 1970 to 2008, from 5.1 million to 9.2 million, making it the 10th-largest state. Its economy has diversified and grown steadily, while businesses that dominated the state’s political dialogue 40 years ago have faded in importance. Textile jobs peaked in 1973. The government’s 2004 tobacco buyout, ending tobacco allotments, left in its wake only about 1,800 tobacco farmers and 11,500 tobacco workers. (State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler even quit growing tobacco.) Some former tobacco farmers have shifted to blueberries and pumpkins. High Point still hosts annual furniture-industry shows, but the furniture factories have been pressed by competition from China.
In place of farming and furniture, research and technology have taken root. One key has been the success of Research Triangle Park, which was established between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—and their universities—in 1959. Its first breakthrough was the opening of a big IBM facility in 1965. Today, it’s one of the world’s leading biotech, pharmaceutical, medical device, and telecommunications centers. New investment in the state hit a record high in 2006. The Triangle’s core counties had 537,000 people in 1970 and 1.5 million in 2008. Its success has been echoed farther west in the Piedmont Research Triad between Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point. And North Carolina has become one of the nation’s leading banking centers. Charlotte is the headquarters of Bank of America (formerly NationsBank and NCNB), which came out of the 2008 financial crisis a winner after purchasing Merrill Lynch. Not far away on Tryon Street is the headquarters of Wachovia, whose roots were in Winston-Salem. Wachovia merged with Charlotte’s First Union in 2001 and was acquired by Wells Fargo in 2008. Metro Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham have accounted for more than half of the state’s population growth for a generation, and they are now major metropolitan areas, with national sports franchises and huge hub airports. North Carolina has one of the nation’s least unionized workforces, something the state’s Democratic leaders have done little to change, and it has long been rated one of the best places to relocate a business. “Our biggest advantage over who we compete with—San Diego, San Francisco, Massachusetts, and the Maryland-Virginia area,” said former Gov. Mike Easley, “is that we can do everything they can do, if not more, but we can do it 20 to 25 percent cheaper when you look at labor and capital investment.” The unemployment rate was low enough that thousands of Latinos moved into North Carolina seeking jobs in construction and in meat and chicken factories. The state’s Hispanic population rose from 77,000 in 1990 to 638,000 in 2007. Yet for all its metropolitan growth, life in North Carolina has not lost its rural tone. The state is the nation’s No. 2 hog producer, with big feedlots and sewage lagoons. One is never out of sight of others, but there is also plenty of green space and reminders of rural roots, from barbecue stands to country Baptist churches to stock car tracks.
The forces behind the change are diverse and sometimes even hostile. North Carolina historically had a small and erudite elite, which looked for guidance from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the liberal editors of the state’s newspapers, most prominently the Raleigh News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Quite different attitudes are nurtured by tradition-minded churches in a state where churchgoing is deeply ingrained, reinforced for years by Sunday blue laws and strengthened periodically by religious revivals. When North Carolina was an economically backward state, infant mortality was common, indoor plumbing was not, and religion was a fountain of hope and a source of discipline, as it is still for many in this now-bustling, air-conditioned, Internet-connected commonwealth.
North Carolina has grown with the aid of both its progressive and tradition-minded citizens, and in spite of—sometimes because of—the polarized politics that have developed between the two. North Carolina’s professionals tend to share progressive values; its businesspeople and conservative Protestants tend to share tradition-minded values. Both groups have contributed to the state’s economic dynamism and cultural energy. Liberal progressivism has provided an impetus toward building good schools and universities, as well as highways and amenities like the nation’s first state-funded symphony and state high schools for science, mathematics, and the arts. Religious conservatism has provided a communitarian spirit and charitable impulses, and a moral undertone that anchors those who might go astray. Each side also has its excesses: the historic racism that undergirded segregation, and the impulses that led black leaders and university professors to cheer on a rogue prosecutor when he brought a baseless case against three Duke lacrosse players.
From these two strands of North Carolina tradition there developed a polarized, increasingly party-line politics, waged partly on economic issues but even more on cultural attitudes. This politics was built on historic partisan patterns. Coastal North Carolina settlers tended to be British Anglicans who became Methodists, slaveholders who supported the Confederacy and voted Democratic. Piedmont settlers by contrast tended to be Scots-Irish Presbyterians, with a scattering of German sects; they were Union men in 1861 and Republicans ever after. The most effective paladins of both traditions for the last quarter-century, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, were each elected to statewide office five times over 25 years, and in 1984 waged what was then the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history. Once bitter rivals, they later reconciled. Hunt left office in 2000 but has remained active in state affairs. Helms did not seek re-election in 2002 and died in 2008 at age 86.
Over the last four decades, Republicans tended to win federal elections in North Carolina, and Democrats tended to do well in state elections. In five elections, Helms never got more than 55% of the vote. But Republicans carried the state for president in every election from 1968 to 2004, except 1976. George W. Bush won 56%-43% in 2000 and, despite the presence of North Carolinian John Edwards on the Democratic ticket, 56%-44% in 2004. At the same time, Democrats have continued to dominate state politics as they have not in other fast-growing Southern states, such as South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia. Hunt was succeeded as governor by Republican Jim Martin in 1984, but in 1992 and 1996, Hunt won his third and fourth terms by solid margins. Democrat Michael Easley, a moderate from eastern North Carolina, was elected governor by solid margins in 2000 and 2004. Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue kept the governorship in Democratic hands by beating Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory in 2008. (There seems to be a Charlotte jinx in North Carolina: Two of McCrory’s predecessors as mayor, Republican Richard Vinroot and Democrat Harvey Gantt, also lost statewide races.) Most of the other statewide races were decided by similar margins. In general, these Democrats have followed Hunt’s lead in policies that are characterized as pro-business but also pro-environment, and in supporting increased spending on education but also insisting on testing and accountability.
The 2008 campaign may have been a turning point in North Carolina politics.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
For a quarter-century after 1980, North Carolina was not a competitive state in presidential elections. Democrats hoped to change that in 2004 when John Kerry named then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate. But Edwards had won just one election in the state, with 51% of the vote in 1998, and his appeal proved limited. The Kerry-Edwards campaign took its ads off the air in North Carolina in August. Edwards himself returned to the state only to vote in October.
The 2008 campaign was quite another matter. North Carolina’s presidential primary, held on the same day in May as its state primary, had played a serious role in presidential politics only once before, in 1976, when after five straight losses, Ronald Reagan started denouncing the Panama Canal Treaty and won his first victory over Gerald Ford. That kept the Reagan campaign viable until the Republican convention. If it had gone the other way, Reagan might not have been a plausible candidate in 1980. Barack Obama’s campaign, quick to spot opportunities, staked out North Carolina as a target, first in the primary and then in the general election. Like Virginia, it had a large African-American population (21%), much of which had never been politically organized. Its universities and its 2007 state law authorizing same-day-registration early voting meant that a large student vote could be mobilized. The relatively recent arrival of highly educated outsiders provided another opening.
The results justified the Obama campaign’s calculations. New registrations in the first three months of 2008 were nearly triple the number in the same months of 2004. Hillary Rodham Clinton, fresh from March and April victories in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, was still in the race and was endorsed by Gov. Michael Easley. But on May 6, Obama won by a solid 56%-42%, carrying not only four districts with high black percentages but also two others with affluent white populations in the Research Triangle and Charlotte areas. Clinton carried rural whites in the east and west of the state. Obama’s big margin in North Carolina, and Clinton’s small margin of victory the same day in Indiana, prompted the late Tim Russert of NBC News to declare that the nomination race was decided, for Obama, that night.
In the fall, John McCain was reluctant to spend resources in North Carolina, where he thought he stood a good shot of winning. The campaign strategy was to target states where McCain could expand his base of support, not simply hold his own. Organizing for the primary gave the Democrats a head start on the general, and they made good use of it. Early voting was heavy, and overall turnout was up 23%, the largest gain of any state. Some 36% of early voters, many of them registering the same day, were African-American. McCain got 9% more votes than George W. Bush had four years before. But Obama got 40% more votes than Kerry and Edwards did, with especially large increases in heavily black eastern counties and in the Research Triangle and metro Charlotte areas. Obama carried the state 49.7%-49.4%. African-American voters went for Obama 95%-5%. But he also got 35% of the votes of whites, up from 27% for Kerry-Edwards. Obama won young voters 74%-26%, and ran behind among voters 30 and over. He carried first-time voters, who were 13% of the total, by 68%-32%.
But at the same time, the vote for state office and national office seemed to be converging. Democrat Bev Perdue was only barely elected governor, and Democrats lost a seat in the state Senate. Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan was able to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole by a wider margin, but the results suggest that North Carolina may be moving toward a more even partisan balance in both federal and state elections. The 2008 exit poll showed that North Carolina’s African-Americans voted heavily for Obama, while white evangelical Protestants voted 74%-25% for McCain. Since blacks formed 23% (down from 26% four years earlier) of those who voted and white evangelical Protestants 44%, they basically canceled each other out—as did the third of voters who did not fit into either category. One question for the future is whether those who came out primarily to vote for Obama will be motivated to vote in the future. Some 140,000 North Carolinians voted for president only and skipped the down-ballot races, more than double the 63,000 people who did so in 2004.
|111th Congress: 8 D, 5 R|
North Carolina won a 12th House seat in the 1990 census and a 13th seat in the 2000 census. It beat out Utah for the latter by just 856 people, because its apportionment population includes some 18,000 U.S. troops and diplomats who claim North Carolina as their home. In the 1990s, North Carolina was the epicenter of race-based redistricting litigation, home to a legal controversy that went to the U.S. Supreme Court four times. Democratic legislators created their plans for 2002 with this litigation in mind. The state House and Senate passed the same plan in November 2001; in North Carolina the governor does not have a veto on redistricting bills. The plan created a new 13th District seat in the northern Piedmont, which leaned Democratic in state elections although it was even in the 2000 presidential race. The district ended up electing Democrat Brad Miller, not coincidentally the chairman of the Senate redistricting committee. The plan significantly weakened 8th District Republican Rep. Robin Hayes, who faced serious challenges in the next four elections and was defeated in 2008. It created six heavily Republican districts and three solidly Democratic districts, with the four other districts tailored to the needs of local Democrats. Republicans filed suit, prevailed in the state courts, but ultimately lost the case when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene.
North Carolina is not expected to gain a 14th seat in the 2010 census. With a Democratic governor in place and large Democratic majorities in the Legislature, it seems likely that the current Democratic redistricting plan will be adjusted only slightly, to meet the equal population standard, for 2012.