When Donald Trump formally accepted his party’s nomination for president on Monday, he thanked the people of North Carolina, saying he had decided to make an unscheduled in-person appearance at the convention in Charlotte “out of respect” for the state’s voters.
“I think you are going to remember that, frankly, on November 3rd,” the president told a small crowd of Republican delegates.
Mr Trump won North Carolina’s 15 Electoral College votes in 2016 by a little more than three points over Hillary Clinton. Four years later — and with just over two months to go until Election Day — Democrats and Republicans agree the race in the traditionally conservative southern state is too close to call.
That North Carolina — which has voted Republican in nine out of the last 10 presidential elections — is even in play is a sign of a broader shift in the composition of the electorate in parts of the South, where an increasingly diverse population could benefit Joe Biden and the Democrats.
Once reliably “red” Republican states, including Georgia, are slowly turning “purple” as groups that tend to favour the Democrats — like college-educated white voters and minorities — make up a greater share of the population.
These trends helped Democrats capture Virginia in the 2008 presidential election for the first time since Lyndon Johnson’s victory in 1964, and to win it again in 2012 and 2016. Now analysts are asking whether the same factors could prise other reliably red states out of the Republican column.
Whitney Ross Manzo, assistant director of North Carolina’s Meredith Poll, said the state “is moving in the direction that Virginia has moved . . . because [its] population has shifted so much — especially in the last 15 years”.
“There have been more minorities moving to the state and more northern people,” Ms Manzo said, adding that residents often joke about how hard it is to find a native North Carolinian. “Those new transplants have . . . shifted the partisan make-up of the state.”
To the south, Jaime Harrison, a Democrat, has closed the gap with longtime Republican senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. In Georgia, two US Senate seats are up for grabs after Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the governor’s race in 2018.
The population in North Carolina has grown significantly in the last decade, as people from elsewhere in the US move to large cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham. They are drawn by a booming job market where major employers include Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and research universities with large healthcare systems such as Duke and Wake Forest.
The people moving to these areas tend to be younger, more racially diverse and more educated than the rural population, and more likely to vote Democratic — even if a large chunk of them are more fiscally and socially conservative than many of the party’s left-leaning activists.
Chris Cooper, a political-science professor at Western Carolina University, said the “newcomers” — sometimes referred to in jest by North Carolina natives as “dislocated Yankees” — were “going to be critical for determining who ultimately wins” the state.
Political experts say North Carolina is a “must win” for Mr Trump, arguing if the president cannot win over a majority of the state’s increasingly diverse electorate, he is unlikely to fare better in nearby states with similar voting blocs, such as Florida.
“If you are Donald Trump and you can’t win North Carolina, that almost certainly means that you lost Virginia, you probably have lost Florida, and then you have probably lost the election,” said Mr Cooper.
Ms Manzo said the president’s chances were not helped by the popularity of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, who “consistently polls as the most highly rated politician in the state”.
Most major public opinion polls in North Carolina show Mr Trump and Mr Biden less than one point apart, and Democrats in the state say they are buoyed by competitive Senate and House races where their candidates are polling strongly and raising record amounts of money.
Mr Cooper, who is also seeking re-election in November, has been lauded by many North Carolinians for his handling of the coronavirus, even as he locked horns with Mr Trump over the Republican party’s plan to hold a full-scale nominating convention in Charlotte during the Covid-19 outbreak. The Republican party ended up scrapping most of its in-person programme and will broadcast the bulk of this week’s convention remotely.
At the same time, incumbent Republican US Senator Thom Tillis, who is seeking re-election in November, faces a tough uphill battle, with Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham enjoying a 3.5-point lead in state opinion polls, according to the Real Clear Politics average.
“Both the Senate race and the governor’s race look like they are going to go Democratic, which means Trump really needs to pay some attention to North Carolina if he intends to win it,” said Ms Manzo.
The last Democrat to win North Carolina was Barack Obama in 2008; he narrowly lost there four years later to Mitt Romney. Before Mr Obama, the last Democratic presidential candidate to triumph in the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Mr Obama’s success in 2008 was widely attributed to record turnout from black voters, as well as younger supporters studying at North Carolina’s many college campuses — two groups that were markedly less enthusiastic about Mrs Clinton in 2016.
Political analysts say if Mr Biden is to eke out a victory there in November, he will need to replicate Mr Obama’s winning formula.
“What I am looking for is African-American turnout,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who has worked for three senators from North Carolina, including Mr Tillis’s colleague Richard Burr.
“Hillary Clinton did not do as well with those voters as she should have,” Mr Heye said. “Is Biden able to maximise the African-American vote this time? If so, that should be game over.”
It was a point echoed at last week’s Democratic nominating convention by Cozzie Watkins, a 69-year-old African-American nurse who was selected to announce North Carolina Democrats’ support for Mr Biden in the formal roll call.
“I have been doing this for a long time, so let me just be plain,” she said, wearing a bright blue suit and polka-dot face mask. “Black people, and especially black women, are the backbone of this party, and if we don’t show up, Democrats don’t get elected. I’m putting on my mask, and we are going to every corner of North Carolina to help organise.”