For nearly a generation, those watching presidential election returns on television every four years have been taught to focus on the results in just one state: Florida, Florida, Florida.
But lately, another state has captured the attention of the political class. It may not decide who will become president in 2016 — but it may well in the future.
North Carolina wasn’t even considered a swing state until 2008. That year, the state voted for Barack Obama, the first Democrat to win there since 1976.
In 2012, both Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney lavished attention and money on the state, hoping to win it. The Democratic National Convention even chose Charlotte as the host city, hoping to give Obama a boost there. In the end, it was the one swing state that Romney won — with just 50.1 percent of the vote.
In the past 20 years, the state has undergone a dramatic demographic transformation. What’s left is essentially every group being fought over in 2016: the white working class, who saw their once stable textile jobs disappear; a growing minority population; and a young professional class living in more urban areas. The state has been at the forefront nationally in terms of the banking industry, the cost of education, and the fight over rights for transgendered individuals.
“The North Carolina electorate is looking more like the national electorate than it did a generation ago,” said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. “The state is increasingly becoming more diverse, and the dynamics of urban versus rural drives politics here like it does in the rest of the country.”
Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have noticed. Trump was in Greensboro on Tuesday. Clinton makes a swing through the state next week. Both campaigns have staff on the ground, though Trump is relying mainly on the Republican National Committee in North Carolina, as he is in most other states, to do the leg work. Clinton began airing television ads in the state on Thursday.
“Hillary Clinton does have a sizable operation here,” Dee Stewart, a North Carolina Republican consultant, conceded.
“But at the end of the day, this will likely be a very close election,” Stewart said. “A statewide win by either party here that is more than 1.5 percent is considered a landslide.”
Still, North Carolina doesn’t hold the keys to the White House like other states. Florida still matters more, given its sheer size — 29 electoral voters compared to North Carolina’s 15. If Clinton wins every state that Democrats have carried in the past six elections and then wins Florida, she becomes president. As 2012 demonstrated, a Democrat can lose North Carolina and still win the election.
The opposite is not true for a Republican candidates.
“North Carolina is a must-win for Trump,” said Nathan Gonzalez, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.
The latest polls in North Carolina show Trump with a slight lead over Clinton. The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Poll, for example, gives Trump a 47-to-43 percent lead over Clinton, which is just outside of the poll’s margin of error.
Courtney Crowder, a Democratic consultant who served as the state’s senior adviser to Obama’s campaign in 2012, said the challenge for Clinton is to drive up turnout among young people and minority groups.
“What Obama did here was unlike anything I have ever seen,” said Crowder. “Clinton does have the organization in place to replicate it, but she needs to bring some of the enthusiasm — or hope that the opposition to Trump does it for her.”
Indeed, there seems to be bipartisan consensus on two things.
First, Obama essentially stole the state in 2008 because he had an operation he built upon after the extended presidential primary there and because his Republican opponent, John McCain, put nearly no resources there.
Second, while North Carolina is no longer considered a Republican state, it’s unclear whether 2008 and 2012 were an aberration (one Democratic win and one razor-thin Republican victory) — or the new norm.
“North Carolina could become like Ohio and Florida as a top swing state,” said Gonzalez. “With Trump running such an unconventional campaign I am not sure if the 2016 election will actually tell us that, but it is a fascinating place to watch right now.”