North Carolina is a boring state.
Okay, hold the rotten tomatoes. I’m not attacking my home state. I’m not denying the amenities and attractions it has in abundance. What I have in mind is that the average North Carolinian is now quite close to the average American in public opinion.
The Gallup Organization conducted a series of interviews during 2015 to measure public sentiment in each state. Respondents answered a range of personal, social, economic, and political questions. Gallup then created a tool, called “State of the States,” to report the findings in several categories.
Let’s start with politics. Gallup asked respondents not simply for their party registration but to choose which party, if any, they identified with most of the time. Among North Carolinians, 41.7 percent identified as Democratic and 41.5 identified as Republican. That difference of two-tenths of a point was the smallest in the country (Ohio tied North Carolina with an identical gap).
Other questions put our state near the center of the national distribution. The share of North Carolinians reporting that they exercised at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week was 52.7 percent, precisely the national average. The shares of North Carolinians reporting that they felt active and productive, had earned recognition for service to their communities, and were worried about their personal finances were all within one-tenth of a point of the national average.
There were some areas of divergence. North Carolinians were more likely to say they were “very religious” (49 percent) than the national average (40 percent), were more likely to say they were underemployed (that is, working part-time but seeking full-time jobs), and were somewhat less likely to express confidence in the growth of the national economy. At the same time, North Carolinians were slightly more likely than Americans in general to report that their employers were hiring more workers.
I admit to being provocative in my choice of the term “boring” to describe these findings. They don’t suggest that North Carolinians are bland and monochrome. We have a wide divergence of backgrounds, views, and lifestyles here. We have Carrboro liberals and Asheboro conservatives. We have urban hipsters, suburban strivers, and rural traditionalists. We have optimists and pessimists. About half of our electorate was born in North Carolina, with the rest hailing from all over the country and beyond. We have an increasingly diverse population, by any measure.
The point is that, across many dimensions at least, North Carolina in its complexity is now similar to and representative of America in its complexity. It’s no surprise, then, that North Carolina has become a key battleground state for Democrats and Republicans — much like Ohio, Missouri, and Florida were in the past.
During the past two presidential elections, North Carolina was the only state to go narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008 and then go narrowly for Mitt Romney in 2012. The Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis in 2014 turned out to be one of the closest in the country (and in state history). While Republicans have won a lot of recent races in North Carolina, the Democrats remain competitive (and would hold more seats in the state legislature and congressional delegation if the district maps were more neutrally drawn).
More to the point, the 2016 governor’s race between probable nominees Pat McCrory for the Republicans and Roy Cooper for the Democrats will be highly competitive. Indeed, it will probably be the most-watched gubernatorial race in the country. It’s not just that North Carolina is the most-populous state to elect its governors in presidential years. Our state exemplifies a nationwide turn to the Right in state governance over the past several years. Conservatives across the country are rooting for the success of this endeavor. Liberals are predicting, and attempting to engineer, its demise.
By becoming more like the rest of America, North Carolina may have lost some of its earlier distinctiveness. But it has gained a great deal from the deal — including the attention of the rest of the country.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.