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BIG CITY: Winds of change in a battleground state

By Kirk Ross

North Carolina is repeating its role as a presidential battleground this election cycle, and again it’s clear that for many this is still unfamiliar territory.

As one of the few states that truly could go either way and one in which redistricting has put several U.S. House seats held by Democrats in play, we’re due to experience another season of massive campaign spending and visits from candidates and surrogates.

If you live in the state’s urbanized areas – and most of the Triangle qualifies – then it’s pretty easy to understand what’s driving the new dynamics of presidential possibilities. It’s the same thing driving about everything else in our area – growth.

Growth in the Triangle, Triad, Wilmington, Asheville and around Charlotte has brought with it an influx of new voters, and with them the rather counterintuitive phenomenon of a lower percentage of registered Democrats but larger numbers of reliable Democratic voters.

Trying to guess an election outcome via registration numbers is difficult because in places like North Carolina that were all but one-party states for so long, a “D” by the name has been no guarantee that that’s the way a person would vote, especially in the presidential races.

The people moving here are coming from a lot of places, but by and large they are not Southern Democrats and certainly not loyal to the Tar Heel Democratic tradition. My own experience as part of the big influx of Midwesterners fleeing the mid-’80s recession was pretty typical. When I went to register to vote in Pittsboro, I didn’t feel kinship with the state Democratic Party and, with Jesse Helms at the top of state Republican ticket, certainly wasn’t going to register with the party that my family had traditionally supported back home. I checked “Unaffiliated.” I was a stranger here, and that seemed about right.

Even though I was a “U,” I was a reliable Democratic vote. Over the past few decades, hundreds of thousands of new voters have come to this state and gone through a similar thought process. It’s reflected in the registration numbers, which show unaffiliated as the fastest-growing category. This is often spun by GOP operatives as a sign the state is not turning as purple as the results from the 2008 presidential election seemed to show. That’s balderdash, wishful thinking and bad math all mixed together.

What is accurate is that this state is close enough to evenly divided that turnout can swing it either way. That’s why the number to watch on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 6 is the percentage of voters who showed up. A big turnout favors Democrats; a low turnout favors Republicans. If you start seeing counties reporting turnouts at 70 percent or above, that’ll be an indication that the night is going the president’s way. He pulled out a close win in 2008 by a little more than 14,000 votes.

Although the economic downturn slowed the rate, the growth trend that favors Democrats in statewide races continued over the past four years. There are more young people, more retirees and tens of thousands of new Hispanic voters in an era when Republicans are hell-bent on alienating them. You may not see the change in this cycle’s registration numbers, but when the votes are counted in November, what’s happening here should get a lot clearer.

Downtown quiz errata

The Big City downtown theme resumes next week, but I quickly need to correct a couple of quiz answers.

First, a classic outsider’s mistake: mixing up the Julians. I heard from a couple of folks, including Shannon Julian, son of Milton and Virginia, who reminded me that it was the front window of Milton’s Clothing Cupboard at 163 East Franklin where Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts played during the downtown summer sidewalk sale known as Hot Diggity Days. He also reports that his 94-year-old father is doing fine.

And if you said the Dairy Bar was on East Franklin where McAlister’s Deli is today, you were just as right as the people who named the West End location in last week’s quiz answers.

Thanks for all the notes and encouragement. Also, a Big City hat tip to UNC’s director of community relations Linda Convissor, who got the most right answers of the folks who contacted me.

Look for another downtown quiz later this fall. Study up; there’ll be some real stumpers on that one too.

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