This election cycle has elevated North Carolina to the national stage, cast as a central player in not only the battle for the White House, but also as a microcosm of the realities faced by small and large communities all across our country. As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton visit the state on an almost weekly rotation, our gubernatorial and Senate races are receiving national attention from both news pundits and party operatives because of the many ways North Carolina reflects the demographic nuances of this national moment.The rural/urban divide is an undeniable central theme in 2016. While nearly two-thirds of North Carolina’s population is centered around its six largest cities located in the middle third of the state, 80 of the state’s 100 counties are classified as rural. This is a significant spread both demographically and historically, as North Carolina has seen its 20th century mainstays, manufacturing and agriculture, decline over the last 40 years, resulting in rising unemployment, lower incomes and higher poverty in once-vibrant rural small towns across the state.At the same time, our urban and metropolitan centers Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington and Raleigh have seen their populations swell from the influx of out-of-state residents looking for lower taxes, as well as a lower cost of living, and jobs in academia and the technology and health care industries which are shaping our state today. Also, retirees attracted to our beautiful geography and moderate climate are a growing segment in our metro areas.Throughout the last century, North Carolina’s rural economy has largely been shaped by farming and textile manufacturing, and many of its small towns grew from and thrived around these endeavors. With the industrial growth in China and countries in Latin America, however, many North Carolina textile and furniture manufacturers have moved their operations overseas or closed their doors for good, often creating a ripple effect on local economies as residents move to find other employment, drying up businesses, resources and opportunities that even state and federal dollars have been slow to repair.On the agricultural front, North Carolina’s chicken and hog farms have faced more recent financial and environmental challenges; however, N.C. remains the largest tobacco producer in the United States, and is seeing a revitalization of niche industries developing around organic and local products, as well as craft, small-batch brewing and spirits.This all translates into an interesting and often complicated political landscape. Voter demographics are typically easy to trace along this rural/urban divide, with more fiscally and socially conservative voters concentrated in rural areas, and more liberal, Democrat-leaning voters in the urban and metropolitan centers.While this is true to a large degree, as evidenced by Trump’s rural visits and Clinton’s metro presence, our state is truly unique because of the growing middle demographic, city/suburban, with newer populations of non-native North Carolinians who bring with them their own regional politics that have begun to shape our state in a profound way. This is the true battleground for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, and a key metric that will likely be the big takeaway in 2016.
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