That old-fashioned word, wallflower, conjures images of a shy young lady standing alone in a room full of dancing couples as callow young men chat without looking her way. An empty dance card dangles from a slim wrist, and eyes are downcast. She looks sad and lonesome.
North Carolina was a lonesome wallflower herself for many presidential cycles. Throughout most of the 20th century, North Carolina voted reliably for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election from 1876 through 1964, with the sole exception of 1928, when we went for Republican Herbert Hoover over Democrat Al Smith, a Roman Catholic in an era of religious discrimination. From 1968 on, we voted solidly Republican, except for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008.
Whatever our personal partisan leanings may be, voting reliably one way or another makes for dull elections. Because the outcomes were predictable, partisan primaries could be fierce, but North Carolina’s presidential races were snoozes. Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina Program on Public Life and a longtime observer of Tar Heel politics, notes that as recently as 2004 neither Democrats nor Republicans purchased even one prime-time ad in our state. Everyone knew how our presidential elections were likely to turn out, so why use precious campaign time and financial resources here?
As Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a changin’…”
In fact, they have changed.
After more than a century as a wallflower, North Carolina is now — depending on your terminology, a swing state, a battleground state or a purple state. This means we no longer give overwhelming support to either party or single Presidential candidate. It also means we are going to get — indeed, we are getting — intense attention from Presidential candidates themselves, their political parties and, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in early 2010, the so-called “dark money” now flowing into our political process. All this is coming our way because purple states, like North Carolina, are the best places for candidates to mine for electoral votes. It is difficult if not impossible to turn a Democratic state like California Republican or a Republican state like Kansas Democratic.
If you have any doubt about how important North Carolina and our 15 electoral votes are, just think back to earlier this month when President Obama gave Hillary Clinton a ride on Air Force One to campaign in Charlotte and spoke glowingly on her behalf. Within hours on the same day, Donald Trump was on stage in Raleigh sharing his campaign message.
North Carolina has not had such attention from presidential hopefuls in living memory, and probably never.
Becoming a purple state reflects dramatic changes in our state over the last half century. No longer are we a largely rural state where people farm or work in furniture, cigarette and textile factories. Our population has nearly doubled since the early 1970s, largely from people coming here from other places. Guillory tells us our newcomers include well-educated, upper income whites from other states, Asians and Latinos who have come for better jobs and African Americans returning “home” after the great out-migration of the early 20th century.
All of this has changed our state from a biracial place to a multi-ethnic society. Our newcomers as well as native North Carolinians, our “Tar Heels bred,” now gravitate to our booming urban areas, particularly Charlotte and the Triangle, meaning that the political clout of rural areas continues to decline. Increasingly, we are a state of urban “haves” and rural “have nots.”
Such dramatic change brings greater diversity, including among political opinions — think everyone from a Down East farmer to a millennial in the tech sector in Charlotte. In addition, the fastest-growing political registration is now “Independent,” a reality unsettling for both Democrats and Republicans.
Political polls are nothing more than snapshots in time. They can change on a dime given a political bombshell. At this writing, Clinton and Trump are running neck and neck, as are Richard Burr and Deborah Ross in our U.S. Senate race.
But we are now a true purple state, and candidates are going to be here both in person and on television scrapping for every available vote while other reliably red or blue states will cruise through election season with few TV spots, positive or negative, and will not lay eyes on Hillary or the Donald.
Here in North Carolina, our dance card is full to overflowing, and a famous face could knock on our door at any moment.
The only think to do is brace ourselves, gets lots of sleep and consider carefully — very carefully.