â€œNorth Carolina is getting bigger and bluer,â€ a well-placed Democratic political consultant told me in mid-October.
He was feeling confident about this election and Democratsâ€™ future here. Like many in the party, he believes North Carolina is headed toward being a Democratic state, a couple of steps behind Virginia and a couple ahead of Georgia.
This weekâ€™s election will tell us a lot. Or maybe not. If Democrats do well, is that simply a rejection of Trump â€“ or a lasting trend? If they donâ€™t do well, it doesnâ€™t bode well for dreams of a â€œbluetopia.â€
Thereâ€™s no question North Carolinaâ€™s getting bigger. Nearly 1.8 million new voters registered between 2016 election and now. They make up nearly 25% of the stateâ€™s 7.3 million registered voters.
Many new voters are under 30; they tend to vote Democratic even though they often register as unaffiliated. Many new voters are from Wake and Mecklenburg counties, which have become strongly Democratic.
The percentages of non-white voters and college-educated voters are growing, while the percentage of non-college whites diminishes. Thatâ€™s a good trend for Democrats.
Mac McCorkle of Duke Universityâ€™s Sanford School of Public Policy wrote:
â€œDemocrats could be on an unstoppable path toward demographic dominance in North Carolina politics by 2040. According to a report last year from researchers at the Brookings Institute and the Center for American Progress, minority groups will make up 40 percent of the stateâ€™s population by 2036. And the Brookings-CAP team projected that the stateâ€™s election results would turn solidly Democratic blue well before that date.â€
But McCorkle, who has decades of practical political experience as a Democratic consultant here and across the South, offers a caution: â€œSuch a progressive scenario could well be too good to be true.â€
Typically, he says, we view North Carolina as divided between Democratic cities and Republican rural areas and small towns. But that leaves out just over 5.2 million â€œin-betweenâ€ North Caroliniansâ€”those living in metropolitan areas outside the stateâ€™s big cities, like Johnston, Alamance, Union, Cabarrus and Gaston counties.
â€œDemocrats may want to write off these sources of Republican strength in outer metropolitan North Carolina as merely a function of the stateâ€™s soon-to-expire whiteness. But such areas may contain a deep-seated â€˜countrypolitanâ€™ resistance to any kind of urban or university-based liberalism. In cultural terms, its informal anthems could remain in the country-populistic vein of Darius Ruckerâ€™s â€˜Wagon Wheelâ€™ remake rather than the rock-elegiac â€˜Carolina on My Mindâ€™ of North Carolina expatriate James Taylor.”
This year, he says, Trump may lose the state because he loses a crucial number of countrypolitans. But McCorkle raises â€œa not-so-outside possibility that should deeply concern Democrats about a post-Trump eraâ€ â€“ non-white Republican politicians who â€œharness this countrypolitan instinct into a powerful political persuasion.â€ Maybe someone like former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley.
Whatever happens in this election, McCorkle cautions, â€œBluntly put, the destiny of a new Democratic progressivism in North Carolina and the nation is not at all manifest. The political future may remain up for grabs in 2040 and beyond.â€