Rob Christensen

NC natives are now outnumbered among voters. What does that mean for Tar Heel politics?

Long lines mark first day of early voting in NC in 2016

VIDEO: There were long lines in November at the early voting sites in Raleigh in 2016.
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VIDEO: There were long lines in November at the early voting sites in Raleigh in 2016.

You'd better be careful with the old expression: 'You ain’t from around here, are you?' Chances are you are talking about your neighbors, friends and members of your church.

A surprising 43 percent of Tar Heel residents were born out-of-state, according to a recent blog post by the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill. And among registered voters who have a birth state listed in state data, people born out-of-state now outnumber native North Carolinians.

But it is not yet clear what that will mean for the future of Tar Heel politics.

The conventional wisdom is that North Carolina is undergoing the same process as Virginia, becoming a more moderate state and moving away from the deep red politics of much of the South.

But non-natives are less likely to be registered as Democrats and more likely to be unaffiliated than are Tar Heel natives. So we should be cautious about making too many predictions.

There is no question that North Carolina has changed dramatically.

When I started writing about politics, only Arkansas and Mississippi were less homogenous in terms of social, economic and religious diversity than North Carolina, according to a 1973 study by John Sullivan in the Journal of Politics.

In those pre-Sunbelt growth days, you could often tell which county a person was from by their last name.

If you go back a century, only one in 10 North Carolina residents was born out of state — a function of the Tar Heel State having missed the great 19th and 20th century European migrations, as Ferrel Guillory of the Program on Public Life at UNC has written.

But that has dramatically changed as North Carolina became one of the moving van capitals of the country.

Migration into the state has been uneven. The Sunbelt influx has occurred in the major metro areas such as the Triangle and Charlotte, the military areas around Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, and the retirement/resort areas of the coast and the mountains. In 17 counties more than half the residents were born outside the state, according to the Population Center.

But there has been little migration into large swaths of the state — particularly the farm country of Eastern North Carolina and the old textile/furniture belt of the Piedmont and foothills. In 23 counties, fewer than 25 percent of residents were born elsewhere.

Michael Bitzer, a political science and history professor at Catawba College, says the in-migration patterns continue to fuel North Carolina’s urban/rural divide.

The five largest states which non-native residents have moved from are, in order, Florida, Virginia, New York, South Carolina and Georgia, with significant populations also from Pennsylvania, Maryland and California.

The politics of those born out of state seem to be a little different from North Carolina natives.

There are 5.9 million registered voters whose birth state is listed in State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement records, out of the state's 6.9 million total registered voters. In 2017, non-natives for the first time outnumbered native North Carolinians. (Native North Carolinians are still a larger group among those considered "active voters," however).

Of the 2.93 million who are recorded as native North Carolinians, 42 percent are registered Democrats, 31 percent are Republicans, and 26 percent are registered unaffiliated, according to an analysis of the records conducted by my News & Observer colleague, David Raynor.

Of the 2.96 million registered voters known to be born out of state, 33 percent are Democrats, 30 percent are Republicans and 37 percent are unaffiliated.

Another way of looking at it is that of all registered Democrats, 56 percent are North Carolina natives and 44 percent were born out of state. Of all registered Republicans, 51 percent are North Carolina natives and 49 percent were born out of state. Of all the unaffiliated voters, 41 percent are North Carolina natives and 59 percent were born out of state.

White Southerners moving into North Carolina tend to register as Republicans, while black Southerners tend to register as Democrats, according to an analysis by Bitzer on his blog, Old North State Politics.

Native northerners tend to register unaffiliated, although residents from a few states, such as Pennsylvania, show a Republican tilt, and those from New York show a Democratic tilt.

The state GOP’s political leadership is reflective of the changing nature of their constituency. The two Republican senators, Richard Burr (a Virginia native) and Thom Tillis (a Florida native) were both born out of state. The most recent GOP governor, Pat McCrory, was born in Ohio, although largely raised in North Carolina. Six members of the congressional delegation were born out of state — five of them Republicans.

In 1840, males outnumbered females 8.68 million to 8.38 million in the United States. By 1950, there were more females than males for the first time in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While the non-natives have a slight Republican tilt, there is little evidence that the state is becoming more conservative. In fact, the opposite is true.

One possible explanation is that many of the Republicans from other states are what I like to call "Whole Foods Republicans," whose views may be more moderate on some issues — such as providing public services and education funding — than some native conservative Democrats.

The impact of migration seems to push Southern states more to the political center.

The two Southern states that twice voted for Democratic President Barack Obama — Virginia and Florida — are also the two Southern states where polls show the voters are to the left of North Carolina’s voters. Each has been heavily influenced by migration into the state — Virginia by its Washington, D.C., suburbs and Florida by sun-seekers.

Many political analysts believe North Carolina — with its strong influx of new residents — is trending just an election cycle or two behind Virginia in moving to the political left. North Carolina voted narrowly for Obama in 2008 and voted narrowly for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, and voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

But each state has its own unique political culture. North Carolina was long regarded as one of the most progressive Southern states, well before the Sunbelt growth.

As journalist John Gunther wrote in 1948: "That North Carolina is by a good deal the most liberal southern state will, I imagine, be agreed to by almost everybody."

It is not yet clear whether North Carolina is on the verge of becoming another Virginia, a battleground state where the Democrats now have the edge.

"The question is whether there will be a tipping point at some point in 2020 or 2024, probably in a presidential election," Bitzer said, "that gives a better sense of whether we are. ... do we start to lean more blue?"

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532;
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