When Hillary Clinton appeared with Michelle Obama last week at Wake Forest University, it followed a pattern of the Democratic presidential candidate campaigning in North Carolina’s major metropolitan areas.
But when Republican Donald Trump campaigned in recent days it tended to be in parts of North Carolina that rarely see presidential candidates – places such as Kinston and Fletcher.
“Clearly the two campaigns are very much in tune with the divide in the state,” said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University.
Call it the tale of the two North Carolinas.
This presidential election has underscored the deep divide in the Tar Heel State between the fast-growing and economically flourishing metropolitan areas and the struggling rural areas. Charlotte and the Triangle are dotted with construction cranes, while large swaths of rural North Carolina are losing population.
While polls suggest that North Carolina is evenly divided in the presidential race, that is not true by region. Trump would carry Northeastern North Carolina and western North Carolina in a landslide, surveys suggest. Clinton would overwhelmingly carry the Triangle and Charlotte.
The same divide plays out in races for governor and the U.S. Senate, although the polls suggest that gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, a Nash County native, holds on to some of the Eastern N.C. vote better than other Democrats.
The dynamic has been evident in past elections, but has been accentuated in this election because of both cultural and economic issues.
“It’s the big divide,” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist. “It’s starker this time than usual. You have two worlds: Hillary is stronger in the urban and suburban world, and Trump is stronger in the rural areas and the small towns.’’
The HB2 issue has underscored the cultural differences, Taylor said. The rural areas tend to be far more culturally conservative, while the metro areas tend to be accepting of social change such as protecting the rights of transgender people and gays.
HB2 eliminates Charlotte’s anti-discrimination protections for gays and transgender people and requires that people in government facilities use only restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. The law also prevents N.C. municipalities from enacting anti-discriminatory laws.
The backlash against HB2 has mainly hurt the urban areas, where companies have canceled expansion plans, conventions and concerts and where NBA, ACC and NCAA events have been canceled.
Trump’s call for renegotiating trade deals and cracking down on illegal immigration likely resonates more strongly in rural and small-town North Carolina, where there have been countless closings of textile mills and furniture factories.
But as Taylor notes, a lot of the metro-area economies have benefited from globalization. There is likely a large professional class in the Triangle and Charlotte that may be Republican leaning but sees the benefit of global trade and immigration.
Wrenn also says that metro areas such as Charlotte and the Triangle have had a large number of people moving into the state from other areas. Many of them are likely independent-leaning voters who may have voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. “They don’t like Hillary Clinton, but they dislike Donald Trump intensely,” Wrenn said.
While the Trump-Pence ticket has focused on its base of support in rural North Carolina, it has not forgotten about the metro areas. Trump recently made a campaign stop in Charlotte and Pence was in Greensboro – hitting the major media markets allowing them to spread their message over wide areas including suburban areas where they are battling Clinton.
The Clinton campaign has also not written off small-town or rural parts of the state. Former President Bill Clinton took a bus trip through Eastern North Carolina last week that seemed focused on the African-American community.
It was a reprise of his 1992 Winston-to-Kinston bus trip with his vice presidential candidate Al Gore – labeled “two Bubbas on a bus.”
Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine is scheduled to be in Jacksonville and Sanford on Monday, much as his Republican counterpart Mike Pence has been stumping in smaller places such as Salisbury and Smithfield.
But when the Democrats’ biggest guns, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, hit the state in the closing days they will be hitting the big metro areas where most of their votes are.