We’re going to be hearing a lot about the census. North Carolina legislators are gearing up for their latest exercise in gerrymandering the state, with redistricting committees set to meet and rumors flying about a 10-4 Congressional map in the works from a Republican Party that has absolutely no shame left. Population shifts will play a central role in how the process plays out. But today I want to examine some news about the issue that could bode poorly for Democrats, though that is not guaranteed.

Much of the framework from which North Carolina Democrats have worked in their political analyses for the last decade is based on population growth. The state is growing, so the argument goes, and new arrivals are disproportionately progressive. Following in the footsteps of our neighbor Virginia, we’ll see demographic change turn the state blue. It’s a tight, neat, and mildly persuasive narrative.

But what if it’s more complicated than that? After all, the state has been growing for sixty years, and Republicans still dominate federal races in the state. Surely demographic change laid the groundwork for a more competitive state, but it has not as of yet made it a solidly progressive one. Between 1990 and 2008, a plurality of new residents were registered Republican. In the years since, they’ve been more likely to register as Unaffiliated voters, but they still haven’t made the state into a replica of the Old Dominion.

And now trends seem to have shifted once again. North Carolina grew a great deal more slowly between 2010-2020 than it did in the two decades prior. As an aside, that may have been the plan: Republicans knew growth threatened their hegemony, and deliberately set out to make the state less welcoming. Another striking change is in the composition of in-migrants. Between 2000-2010, twice as many new North Carolinians came from New York as from South Carolina. In the last decade, more came from South Carolina than from New York. From this it’s not hard to infer that policies like HB2 and guns-in-bars have made the state less attractive to potential transplants from progressive states.

Where transplants come from makes a difference to how they impact a state’s politics. Voters from other parts of the South are less likely to move a state from red to blue, as has been seen in Tennessee, a fast-growing state that has mostly attracted other Southerners, and went for Trump by a 2-1 margin. Migration patterns that favor conservative “sending” states will benefit Democrats less than the longstanding influx of people from blue states seeking warmer weather and cheaper housing.

North Carolina is still attracting large numbers of people from northern, blue states, and from California. It’s not as if we’ve suddenly become Florida and reinvented ourselves as a haven for MAGA fanatics. Furthermore, even conservative-leaning suburbanites in places like New Bern have moved in a marginally Democratic direction. The exurbs, traditionally the most conservative communities in the state, are inching toward Democrats as well. The news for Democrats is not altogether terrible. But there’s a lot to think about, and a lot to question.

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