Why N.C. swung to Obama

Staff WriterSeptember 12, 2010 

The old joke about Cary is that it's an acronym for Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.

But the migration from the Northeast has hardly been contained to Cary. All across North Carolina, the state has seen explosive growth, especially in the metropolitan, resort and military areas.

The demographic changes are having an important impact on Tar Heel politics, making the state less conservative - no matter what happens this fall, according to a new study.

According to a study by two political science professors, that migration is an important reason why North Carolina voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 - the first time it went Democratic in a presidential race in 32 years. "In contemporary North Carolina, migrants born outside the South are more likely to identify and register politically unaffiliated, and their growing share of the state's electorate directly contributed to Obama's narrow win," write M.V. Hood III of the University of Georgia and Seth C. McKee of the University of South Florida.

It is no coincidence, Hood and McKee write, that the three Southern states with the largest percentage of residents born in the Democratic-leaning Northeast - Florida, North Carolina and Virginia - are the three Southern states that voted for Obama.

North Carolina's makeup has changed dramatically in recent decades.

Consider two states: North Carolina, with dynamic growth, and Iowa, with a static population. Since 1960,Iowa has grown from 2.7 million people to 3 million, while North Carolina has grown from 4.5 million to 9.3 million people.

Hood and McKee looked at new registered voters in North Carolina between 1988 and 2008 and the percentage who were non-Southerners.

Their study found that in 30 counties, 20 percent to 30 percent of the new voters were born outside the South. In 24 counties, 30 percent to 40 percent of the new voters were born outside the region; and in 19 counties, more than 40 percent of the new voters were non-Southerners.

In three of the counties, a majority of the new voters were non-Southerners: Mecklenburg (50.1 percent), Onslow (50.8 percent) and Wake (54.7 percent).

Two different polls showed that North Carolina residents born outside the state were more likely to vote for Obama, the authors found. That difference enabled Obama to defeat Republican John McCain by a 50-49 percent margin.

"We would not be surprised if the state returns to the Republican column in 2012," the authors write. "Our claim is not that North Carolina is now a Democratic state in presidential politics, but rather because of population change through a continuing and substantial influx of migrants born outside the South, these voters are pushing the state in a competitive direction - essentially making it a swing state."

Hood and McKee are not arguing that North Carolina is changing from a red state to a blue state. But they do think it is becoming somewhat purple. or 919-829-4532

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