North Carolina was reluctant to become a swing state. Republicans won all but one presidential election in North Carolina from 1968 to 2004. George W. Bush captured a commanding lead of almost 13 percent in 2000 and 2004. However, the state saw a seismic political shift when Obama won by 0.3 percent in 2008 and lost by only 2 percent in 2012. North Carolina remains a toss-up in 2016.
The single trend best explaining North Carolina’s shift from red to purple is interstate migration. The population of North Carolina has changed dramatically due to nonnative North Carolinians moving into the state. The portion of eligible voters in North Carolina who were actually born in North Carolina decreased from 75 percent in 1980 to 68 percent in 1990, and 54 percent in 2014.
These new residents have a greater tendency to vote for Democrats than for Republicans. Urban counties in North Carolina are both Democratic strongholds and are growing in population faster than the state average. A large portion of the people moving to North Carolina come from less conservative states like New York and Virginia.
We see this pattern in cultural indicators beyond census figures. Native North Carolinians are far more likely to have a southern accent than nonnatives, according to data that I have collected as director of the Elon University Poll. In my latest Elon Poll, I had interviewers code each respondent’s accent at the end of every conversation. Clinton led Trump by 38 points among those with no southern accent. But among those with a strong southern accent, Clinton was down 38 points.
Younger generations replacing older generations, increases in turnout among African-Americans and other factors have also contributed to a shift from red to purple, but migration is what most contributed to North Carolina becoming a critical battleground state. The competitiveness of North Carolina in 2016 is in large part due to new residents trekking south toward the Old North State.