North Carolina could be the most interesting state this election

North Carolina has a unique mix of Southern conservatives, transplanted progressives, and African Americans that means it reflects the broader tensions of this election like no other state.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign during a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., in this July 25 file photo.

Even in an election that has evoked intense political passions, the incident stood out: the firebombing last weekend of a Republican campaign headquarters in North Carolina.

The brazen attack was immediately and widely condemned. Democrats raised money to rebuild the office, and the state Republican Party later thanked Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her statements of support.

But the incident – as well as the paper-thin margins in recent presidential polls here – have put North Carolina in the spotlight.

The state has become more than a must-win for Donald Trump. It has emerged as a unique looking-glass into the partisan divides that have fueled this election.

Other states are electoral battlegrounds, but none have North Carolina’s mix of traditional Southern-style conservatism alongside thriving Millennial-led multicultural progressivism. Agrarian yet tech savvy, deeply evangelical yet globally progressive, deep red splashed with bright blue – the contrasts that once were part of North Carolina’s unique draw have become fissures.

That makes it a state to watch not only on Election Day, but in the months and years after – a crucible for how the pitched sides of America’s political divide can coexist and evolve. 

“North Carolina is a microcosm of the divisions in the US electorate, but on steroids: The gap between white voters with and without college degrees is huge, the white to nonwhite gap is huge, and the rural-urban gap is huge,” says Steven Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

North Carolina as mini-America

The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Mrs. Clinton with a 1.8 percentage point lead on Mr. Trump in North Carolina. The data journalism site also notes the state’s peculiar character.

“Its mix of voters – a combination of college-educated whites (and college students) in Charlotte and the Research Triangle, African-Americans, and often very conservative white evangelicals elsewhere in the state – is distinctive,” writes Nate Silver.

The site rates North Carolina as the fourth-most-important state in the presidential race – the fourth-most-likely tipping point to determine the election.

But in many ways, North Carolina has a much deeper significance to this election. It has been wrenched by many of the most divisive issues of the election, offering a more-intimate portrait of the challenges the election has brought to the fore.

The state’s faltering furniture and textile mills have been hit so hard by trade and other forces that three of the five fastest-falling economic regions in the United States are in North Carolina.

And the racial fault lines that have largely defined this election have played out sharply in North Carolina.  

In September, the shooting of a black man, Keith Scott, by police in Charlotte resulted in several nights of riots and led the governor to deploy the National Guard.

And in July, a federal appeals court struck down a state voter ID law that, the judges wrote, targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”

Perhaps the most obvious example of the cultural and political divides playing out in the state came with the passage of House Bill 2, the bathroom bill that limited transgender rights and has led to widespread boycotts of the state.

Many of the clashes are born of North Carolina’s changing demographics. There are now fewer native-born North Carolinians in the state than newcomers. Nearly half a million people moved into the state since 2010, many of them Millennials migrating to hip, walkable cities with jobs.

When Republicans took over the state legislature in 2010, they started a backlash to stem the spread of liberal ideals.

Tar Heels and Trumpism

Trump’s movement has had the same aims, in many respects. And it has adopted the same tone.

A willingness to run roughshod over political opponents has put North Carolina at odds even with other Southern neighbors.

In Tennessee, senior statesmen like Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker symbolize how the broader politics have remained generally civil. But in North Carolina, conservative lawmakers talk openly about political “payback” for decades of Democratic rule.

“Political scientists try to look at big structural and institutional factors, but let’s be honest: We’re dealing with unique human beings and personalities here,” says Professor Greene. “You have these older white powerful guys with egos going at it – and sometimes that’s the best explanation for what’s happening, not the structural factors.”

It was in Fayetteville this spring that an older white man punched a black protester while he was being removed from a Trump event by security guards. It was Greensboro this Friday that Trump said: “It’s one big fix. This whole election is being rigged.’’

The “rigged” accusations play to many Republicans’ disdain for the federal government – an impulse that has a particular resonance in the South.

“Trump is appealing to and validating a significant number of Americans who … want to rip it all down,” writes Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

But it is in North Carolina where those impulses find the most powerful and proximate resistance.

“North Carolina has been a progressive Southern state in terms of education and to some extent on race relations as compared to the Deep South, but it is still a Southern state with a lot of traditional views on racial issues and gender issues and things like that, which has created a mixed bag for North Carolina,” says Jarvis Hall, a political scientist at North Carolina Central University, a historically black college in Durham.

“What we’re now seeing emerge is some sort of dualism where rural counties are unable to keep up with what’s going on in urban counties in a post-industrial sense, and people are feeling that pain,” he says. “They want someone to blame.”

Add a racial element to the clash of conservative and progressive, and it becomes explosive.

“So much of politics in North Carolina is implicitly racial, and Trump has made it more explicitly racial,” says Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “And those attitudes are going to be more convulsive in a place like the former Confederacy than in a place like Colorado.”  

Virginia's clues

But at the same time, North Carolina’s future might not be so murky.

Just to the north, Virginia has already undergone the same transition, from Southern conservatism to a more plurality-based politics embodied by Millennials. From the rapid influx of newcomers to the rise of globalized high-tech jobs to the rise of cities at the expense of rural reaches – it’s the same story seen in North Carolina.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, now on the Democratic ballot as Clinton’s vice presidential pick, helped shepherd the state through the demographic shifts that pitted northern Virginia’s massive suburbs against the state’s rural traditions.

Talking to the New Yorker about the fears of demographic change stirred up in the current presidential campaign, Senator Kaine said: “I think Virginia is a tribute to the fact that that anxiety is a transitional anxiety.” In Virginia, he said, “We proudly claim our past, but we’re not looking in the past, and we’re not living in the past.”

Now, North Carolina faces that prospect, and Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College, suggests: “As North Carolina goes, so goes the country.”

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