North Carolina is Hard to Know

North Carolina matters in this presidential election. The two major-party candidates frequently jet in and out of our state to give speeches, and it is no coincidence that the Democrats selected Charlotte to host their convention this week.

People outside the state aren't sure what to think of us. It seems liberal, because Terry Sanford and John Edwards served as senators. But so did Jesse Helms, and for a lot longer.

If you think that North Carolina is typically Southern, you don't know us. Bad soil and shallow rivers denied us many of the slave-based plantations that powered South Carolina and Virginia to their 19th Century peaks. Instead, North Carolina remained poor, with a population of unpredictable yeoman farmers.

Slaves or not, North Carolinians fought for the Confederacy and took so many casualties that monuments across the state recall "Our Confederate Dead." Still, as the war wound down, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman called off his army of locusts that had swarmed through Georgia and South Carolina. Sherman's orders read, "[T]he State of North Carolina was one of the last States that passed the ordinance of secession. . . . [I]t should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies of our government." Sherman wasn't sure what to think of North Carolina, either.

A political environment friendly to business (and hostile to unions), combined with a workforce spread over hundreds of small towns, made post-war North Carolina attractive to such labor-intensive industries as textiles, apparel, furniture and cigarette production. By 1900, there were nearly 200 large textile mills operating in the state, attracting workers (called "lint heads" for the cotton fragments in their hair) from the countryside. The state's population doubled between 1880 and 1920.

The state legislature and a succession of pro-business governors of both parties were keener than those in other states to invest in roads and higher education. The twin giants the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University occupy two corners of its Research Triangle, with the third corner held down by powerhouse Duke University. As result, the Triangle has among the highest concentration of advanced degrees in the nation.

Today, the largest employment sectors are manufacturing and health care, concentrated around the Research Triangle and also the Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point), and finance, concentrated in Charlotte.

Politically, North Carolina is still hard to know. The population has doubled since 1980. In several of the largest counties, half of the residents were not born here.

Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, the only Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter (in 1976) to win here. But the race was decided by only 15,000 votes, and the governor's race (won by Democrat Beverly Perdue) was the closest in America. The turnout rate was more than 65 percent, nearly 8 percentage points above the average for the state.

Last May, North Carolina again showed its unpredictability. Amendment One, a constitutional change to ban same-sex marriage, passed by 61 to 39 percent. The day after the vote, President Obama announced his own support for same-sex marriage rights. A number of conservative African-American pastors, longtime residents of the state, condemned the president, and some previous supporters of the president repudiated him. But many new residents of the state supported the move.

The Democratic National Convention is being held in Bank of America Stadium, North Carolina's uneasy relations with political predictability are if anything growing stranger. The Democrats refuse to refer to BOA stadium by name, referring to it instead as "the venue" or "the speech." Some union supporters are boycotting the convention entirely, and it is not clear that the Democrats will be able to fill the stadium without recruiting "volunteers."

On the other hand, most polls still have President Obama clinging to a narrow lead here. This may be surprising, given that possible cuts in military appear to threaten the state, home to three large military bases, which could further increase our 9.5 percent unemployment rate, already among the highest in the nation.

So, as always when it comes to North Carolina politics, the result will be hard to know. In spite of the difficulties facing the state, it should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies of the incumbent.

Michael Munger is a professor of political science, economics and public policy at Duke University and was the 2008 Libertarian candidate for North Carolina governor. This commentary was originally published in The Providence Journal.