Will North Carolina become a "Bluetopia?"
Published November 5, 2020
By Gary Pearce
“North Carolina is getting bigger and bluer,” a well-placed Democratic political consultant told me in mid-October.
He was feeling confident about this election and Democrats’ 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 week’s election will tell us a lot. Or maybe not. If Democrats do well, is that simply a rejection of Trump – or a lasting trend? If they don’t do well, it doesn’t bode well for dreams of a “bluetopia.”
There’s no question North Carolina’s getting bigger. Nearly 1.8 million new voters registered between 2016 election and now. They make up nearly 25% of the state’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. That’s a good trend for Democrats.
Mac McCorkle of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy wrote:
“Democrats 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 state’s population by 2036. And the Brookings-CAP team projected that the state’s election results would turn solidly Democratic blue well before that date.”
But McCorkle, who has decades of practical political experience as a Democratic consultant here and across the South, offers a caution: “Such a progressive scenario could well be too good to be true.”
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 “in-between” North Carolinians—those living in metropolitan areas outside the state’s big cities, like Johnston, Alamance, Union, Cabarrus and Gaston counties.
“Democrats may want to write off these sources of Republican strength in outer metropolitan North Carolina as merely a function of the state’s soon-to-expire whiteness. But such areas may contain a deep-seated ‘countrypolitan’ 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 Rucker’s ‘Wagon Wheel’ remake rather than the rock-elegiac ‘Carolina on My Mind’ 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 “a not-so-outside possibility that should deeply concern Democrats about a post-Trump era” – non-white Republican politicians who “harness this countrypolitan instinct into a powerful political persuasion.” Maybe someone like former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley.
Whatever happens in this election, McCorkle cautions, “Bluntly 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.”