Sometimes a metaphor can reshape the way society understands itself. Such was the case with the red-blue political map that emerged from coverage of America’s 2000 presidential election. This visual conceptualization of political divides has flattened the way we think of country and its politics. It is especially true of a state like North Carolina which has so many peaks and valleys in its political landscape.
So: Is it a red state, a light-red state, a purple state, or a state that is trending blue? The truth is that it is all of these things. In one of the state’s most picturesque areas, Stokes County a half hour north of Winston-Salem, Donald Trump received 78% of the vote. Down tobacco road in Durham County, Joe Biden captured a share of the vote that rivaled his performance in such iconic liberal jurisdictions as New York City and San Francisco. Observers naturally struggle to pin a particular analytical frame on a state with many complications.
One thing, however, is clearly true. This state will remain hotly contested through at least 2040. By then, the state’s demographics may be diverse enough to land it in the category of newly blue states like Colorado and Virginia. But in the ensuing decades, a tug of war will rage between its progressive impulses and deeply ingrained conservatism.
To understand the coming decades, consider the last one. Putting aside the fluky Republican wave of 2010, the last five elections in the state have been decided by 2%, 1.5%, 3.7%, 2.5% and 1.4%. That is the picture of a state that neither party can take for granted, even if Republicans prevailed in four of those five contests. Optimistic Democrats must reckon with their party’s poor top-line performances, understanding that conservatism remains favored to narrowly prevail in neutral circumstances, but Republicans should also account for the smallness of their wins and avoid a certain smugness based on these less-than-decisive verdicts.
About that tug of war. Sentimentalism aside, North Carolina is not one state, but many. It is a state of traditional communities centered on the fundamentalist church and cities where change is the civic religion. It is a state of small towns, suburbs, exurbs and urban centers. All these different places have their own set of political preferences, and all pose unique challenges and (sometimes) opportunities to both parties. In the near term, victory will go to whichever party can bring together a coalition of different North Carolinas big enough to get to 51%. Right now, that appears to be the Republicans. But as the GOP’s hold on the outer suburbs begins to loosen, Democrats will have an opportunity to build the same kind of coalition that has brought Democrats success in Southern states like Virginia and Georgia.
Finally, a note of encouragement for the Democratic party: though its conservatism runs deep, North Carolina has a persistent progressive impulse. Across the state, craft breweries are opening and immigrants and educated professionals are buying homes. I have emphasized the challenges facing Democrats as they are increasingly identified with the cultural liberalism of the national party. But this is a fundamentally competitive state where any strong campaign has a chance of winning.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.