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Shifting population could affect North Carolina voting in 2018

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Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, examined the current and future landscape of North Carolina election politics Tuesday as guest speaker for the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce Power Luncheon.


By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Although still an important swing state in the national political landscape, shifting demographics and rapidly changing population patterns point to changes in North Carolina’s internal dynamics and its political influence, according to an analyst who spoke on Tuesday in Greenville. 

North Carolina now is about half Republican and half Democrat, but the political demographic has shifted away from a west-versus-east makeup to more of an urban-versus-rural alignment, according to Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation,  who shared his observations at the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce Power Luncheon at the Hilton Greenville.

Kappler said the data cannot predict voter behavior going forward, but attention to shifts in population and demographics can provide insight into the dynamics of North Carolina’s rapidly changing communities and a view of districts looking forward.

Non-natives now comprise 50 percent of North Carolina’s population of registered voters, Kappler said. Many are from New York, Pennsylvania and other northern states, bringing a different perspective and little understanding of the history of this state’s politics.

“There is some indication that those people behave differently than North Carolina natives,” he said. “ Polling reveals some interesting differences in how they are likely to vote.”

North Carolina still has the second-largest rural population in the United States behind Texas, producing many of the state’s current legislators, he said.

“State population growth is happening very unevenly now, with urban areas becoming more Democratic and rural areas remaining more Republican,” Kappler said. “Overall, it’s still a jump ball, and a Democrat or Republican can win statewide, which we anticipate continuing as we go forward.”

North Carolina’s suburban communities represent the most active political battleground, Kappler said. A number of factors contribute to that, including high population growth rates and shifting district lines.

“The 2016 presidential election was overtaken by rural and blue collar voters, but some some of these reliable suburban districts no longer are so reliable,” he said. “Early indications are that they are starting to trend away from the Republican party.” 

Today, Wake and Mecklenburg counties, because of their enormous growth rates, are squeezing out the rest of the state in political and electoral influence, Kappler said.

“Combined, Wake and Mecklenburg account for just over 20 percent of the North Carolina’s electorate, and they’re increasingly Democratic” he said. “That changes half of the formula for winning a statewide contest, with two to four House seats and a couple more senate seats shifting after the next census to Mecklenburg and Wake counties.”

The Raleigh, Charlotte and Triad market areas accounted for 82 percent of the state’s election results, Kappler’s data indicated. 

“Having said that, you cannot ignore the smaller markets around the state,” Kappler said. “We have a history of very close contests. Bertie County and its 5,000 registered voters could be a difference maker.”

Looking ahead into 2018, Kappler said the economy, international crisis and shifting demographics can be strong voter determinants for voters.

In North Carolina, new legislative districts and the role of Gov. Roy Cooper also could be strong factors, he said. Cooper’s relative popularity can influence fundraising and candidate recruitment to try and break the Republican legislative supermajority, he said.

“Historically, a mid-term election is bad for the controlling party,” Kappler said. “When the economy is strong, people think less about it and more about other issues. Whoever wins arguments over issues like the environment or redistricting likely will perform more favorably. Changes in suburban voting are away from the Republican Party, driven by women and more educated voters.” 

The N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation aims to foster informed civic involvement, develop an understanding of the free enterprise economy, and strengthen North Carolina’s business environment, according to the mission statement at its website, www.ncfef.org. Prior to his role as the foundation’s executive director, Kappler served as interim vice president of federal relations and director of state government relations for the University of North Carolina System, representing its 17 institutions in business before the N.C. General Assembly, state and federal agencies and Congress.

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.