Rob Christensen

Nail biting: North Carolina’s new norm — Christensen

Once again North Carolina was one of the nation’s most purple-hued states, with tight political races for president, U.S. Senate, governor and other contests down the ballot.

Such coin-toss elections have become the norm in North Carolina. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the state by his smallest margin. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won the state by his smallest margin.

The presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, based on early returns, was expected to be close.

North Carolina is so competitive that it has become one of the most closely watched states in the country.

The headline in Politico, an online publication, summed up the attention the national campaigns were showering on the state the day before the election: “The day North Carolina became the Center of the Political Universe.”

It was a reference to a single day in which Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine campaigned in Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington, former President Bill Clinton stumped in Greensboro, Donald Trump held a rally in Raleigh and Hillary Clinton staged a midnight rally in Raleigh with rock stars Jon Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga.

(In giving a speech to a business group at Cary’s Umstead Hotel Monday morning, I had to make my way past Secret Service agents and Highway Patrol cars — there to protect Kaine, who was a hotel guest.)

At one point Friday at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, both presidential candidates’ jets were parked on the tarmac.

That trend is likely to continue into the future because of the state’s rich diversity, which includes traditionally rural and small-town areas; fast-growing metro areas more akin to global hubs Atlanta and Miami than Mayberry; a sizeable African-American community; and heavy migration into the state.

Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University, said North Carolina is one of a small number of states including Florida, Georgia, and Virginia that have become such a varied mixture of the new and the traditional Southern that they no longer fit into a neat mold and should probably have their own category.

Early voting in North Carolina saw an 86 percent rise in Hispanic voters and a 74 percent rise in Asian-American voters — although in both instances they involved only modest numbers.

North Carolina gained 400,000 new people between 2010 and 2014, the fifth largest increase in the nation. But the growth has been lopsided. Forty percent of that growth was in the Triangle, while 49 of North Carolina’s 100 counties lost population, according to UNC Carolina Demography.

So the state’s metropolitan areas are among the fastest growing places in America, while much of rural and small-town America is economically struggling. One part of North Carolina is a winner in the global economy and another large swath is falling behind.

It is little wonder that North Carolina voters have a difficult time agreeing on candidates, or such issues as trade or immigration.

While such divisions are most prominent in the presidential race, they can be seen in other races as well.

North Carolina was facing a close governor’s race with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory attempting to fend off a challenge from Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper. Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr was facing a stiff challenge from former state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat.

Most of the races down the ballot such as for lieutenant governor, attorney general and state treasurer were similarly close.

Taylor said it’s unlikely that North Carolina will morph into either a strongly Democratic or Republican state in the foreseeable future, but will remain a strong purple.

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