RALEIGH Donald Trump or one of his adult children have been in N.C. 15 times since he won the Republican nomination. Hillary Clinton or one of her family members have come 10 times. From Asheville to Wilmington, the candidates have drawn crowds, sampled barbecue, and toured farms, factories and trendy boutiques. N.C.’s undeniable influence on the next resident of the White House has made national headlines, along with Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.”The outcome is uncertain. It’s not clear who is going to win,” said Andrew Taylor, professor of political science at NC State University. “We are a largish state and 15 electoral votes are important in getting to 270. There aren’t that many large states out there where the outcome is unclear.”Seen as a ‘purple state,’ North Carolina picked Mitt Romney for president in 2012, but in 2008 they chose Barack Obama. However, Obama’s win in the Old North State that year was the first for a Democratic president since Jimmy Carter in 1976.”There was a breakthrough in 1972, down the ballot; that’s the year Jesse Helms was elected to the Senate, Holshouser became governor, but it was really tough for the Republicans to do well in the state until in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Taylor. “Republicans couldn’t break through down ballot in N.C. Democrats here were a traditional party and strong organization, but at the national level Democrats were running candidates that were too liberal for many North Carolinians, including many North Carolina Democrats.”After decades of focusing on building a party organization, raising money and recruiting candidates, Republicans began to make significant headway at the state level in 2010. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took the Executive Mansion in 2012 and voters sent a majority of Republicans to the General Assembly. 2012 was the first time in a century that Republicans controlled both chambers of the N.C. legislature.While Republicans focused on party goals like reducing state debt, cutting taxes and job development, some of the issues proved controversial, sparking weekly protests, dubbed “Moral Monday,” on voter ID, immigration and other issues. Still, voters re-elected an overwhelming majority of those Republican lawmakers in 2014.Taylor says a key factor in the party power shift and the rural/urban divide is the nationalization of the parties. Rather than the traditional Southern conservative values that dictated both parties, they are now looking more like their national counterparts.”The N.C. Democratic Party now looks like Democratic parties in different parts of the country,” said Taylor. “In the past it had a reputation of being pragmatic, of being business friendly. This is the party of people like Jim Hunt. But now it’s rather like the Democratic party elsewhere, more to the left on economic issues than the old North Carolina Democratic Party, more interested in identity politics than traditionally the party was here.”According to Taylor, the state Democratic Party is adopting the national model of having the social and advocacy groups with which they identify shape their stance. Meanwhile Republicans are adjusting to their growth, and consequent internal conflicts.”Its success has led it to become bigger and more internally diverse, so you have the battle going on within the Republican Party as you do elsewhere,” he said. “The economic conservatives who are perhaps more liberal on social issues, but interested in low regulation, low tax, fiscal responsibility. Then you have social and religious conservatives who may be more populist on economic issues, but consider themselves to be Republican because of issues like the role of religion in public life.”While the party shifts lead many to call N.C. “purple,” those who know it well say that the urban areas of the state are solidly blue, while the rural is solidly red. That has not gone unnoticed as the campaigns have searched for their sweet spot here. Clinton has stayed in Raleigh, Charlotte and the Triad, focusing on social issues, lower tuition and H.B. 2., and Trump fills county centers in the eastern, more rural and conservative parts of the state with talk of better trade deals and law and order.Both parties see opportunity and landmines in the recent unrest in Charlotte and have, as a result, stayed away from the city this week. Democrats are using the shooting and conflict over a state body cameras law to talk about civil injustice and police overreach. Republicans talk about lawlessness and try to reassure voters with strength and leadership.With early voting in N.C. starting in a few weeks, political strategists from all the campaigns will keep a close eye on the events and polls in N.C. and work a game plan to get their candidate in front of as many voters as possible.
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