How Did North Carolina Become The 2016 Election's Bellweather State?

Nov 3, 2016

Credit Matt Bush WCQS

This story originally aired as part of the WCQS 2016 Election Special, which can be heard in its entirety here.

It's safe to say this has been an election year and an election cycle like no other before it.  And that is particularly true in North Carolina, which has become one of if the not the bell weather state in this election…so move over Ohio. 

Dr. Chris Cooper, professor and political analyst at Western Carolina University, stopped by our studios to answer why it’s our state that has become so important and popular with presidential candidates and the national media.

Why did North Carolina become the bellweather state in 2016? - "I think it's been a slow progression.   In 2008 and 2012, people made a lot of the flip (in North Carolina).  In 2008, we went blue (for President Obama) and in 2012 we went red (for Mitt Romney).   And I think the whole country said 'Something must be happening in North Carolina.'  I think the reality is the state is just getting closer.  In 2008, of all the states President Obama won, his smallest margin was in North Carolina.  In 2012, of all the states Mitt Romney, his smallest margin was in North Carolina.   I don't think it's been this election cycle (that has made the state closer) although we've certainly received the media coverage for it.

What factors have led to making North Carolina such a 'close' state in presidential elections - "One is 'in-migrants' to the state.  One of not the main reason North Carolina went blue in 2008 was 'in-migrants' to the state who tended to register unaffiliated...and they turned out for President Obama in pretty huge numbers.   Places like Research Triangle Park, Buncombe County to some degree, Mecklenburg County...those places have had a lot of 'in-migration.'  At the same time, the South went from being overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican over time.  North Carolina was never quite as Democratic as other Southern states, and was never quite as Republican either.  So North Carolina has held closer to the line."

What role has western North Carolina had in making the state a 'battleground' - "Candidates who come here need to appeal to Buncombe County, which is reliably blue.  They also need to appeal to places like Watauga and Jackson Counties, which are sometimes red and sometimes blue.  And then there's the rest of western North Carolina which is reliably red.  The partisan shift (that the South has seen from Democrats to Republicans over time) has been a little slower to happen in western North Carolina."

Why has that partisan shift been so slow to occur in WNC - "I think race.  One of the reasons we know the partisan shift happened was when African-Americans started to register to vote in much larger numbers, they went to the Democratic Party.  As a result, many white Southerners left the Democratic Party and went to the Republican Party.  In an area like western North Carolina with single digit percentages of African-Americans, it's a lot less likely that's going to happen.  So a lot of people have held on to this old 'Mountain Democrat' or 'Blue Dog Democrat' ideal that Heath Shuler represented I think very well in Congress."

What will be the effect of having all nearly all levels of government on the ballot this year (Federal, State, County) - "It will drive up voter turnout.  If you're motivated at the federal, state, or local level...there's something on this ballot for you.  The parties need to really concentrate on getting people to the polls.  I expect we're going to see higher turnout, but also what we call 'ballot roll-off'.  That's where people vote at the top of the ticket and when they get lower down they say 'I've kind of lost track of who these folks are...I'm not going to cast an ill-informed vote.'  And obviously the fewer voters there are (in those elections) the more each vote matters."