The Nation's Pulse

Sweet Carolina

A snapshot of this unexpected battleground state.

By 5.6.08

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For the first time in a long time, North Carolina matters. The state's early May primary has usually meant that by the time that date rolled around, the presidential primary was long over. It had been decided by those in Iowa and New Hampshire and, more recently, those across the border in South Carolina. By the time May arrived it seemed silly to be voting in the primary when the rest of the country was in general election mode.

But this year is different. For the first time in most people's lifetimes the candidates are zigzagging the state, holding rallies in a setting that is more accessible than North Carolina is used to. A Democratic presidential primary rages on, while the North Carolina Republican Party is running ads denounced by John McCain -- yet they refuse to stop. North Carolina is a unique state. Here's why.

North Carolina seems as though it were a perfectly red state. It, after all, has two Republican Senators and voted solidly for President Bush twice. However, North Carolina is really more of a purple state. Nationally, the state votes Republican. But locally, it has a state legislature dominated by Democrats and has had a Democratic Governor since 1993, when Governor Jim Martin finished his term as the second Republican governor of North Carolina in the 20th century.

North Carolina is not a state that is defined by a political party. There is a strong contingent in North Carolina called Dixiecrats. These are people who are socially conservative and economically liberal. That is why they vote Republican in national elections, where social issues are prominent and social solutions are possible. But in local elections, they generally vote for Democrats, who pledge to help the poor and provide aid to farmers.

But the national/local distinction can be broken if candidates know how to target Dixiecrats. John Edwards did it -- a nobody who unseated an incumbent for his Senate seat because he knew this valuable lesson.

IN NORTH CAROLINA, unaffiliated voters (which a large amount of Dixiecrats are) can choose to vote in either the Democratic primary or the Republican primary. This year, it is likely a lot of them will vote in the Democratic primary because that is where the excitement is, there is a presidential election there in North Carolina!

The gubernatorial race on the Democratic side is also a heated one -- a close race with heavy negative campaigning. That's not to say that the Republican gubernatorial race isn't a close one, with Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory entering the race late, which is significant because much of the state will not vote for a Charlotte mayor simply because he is from Charlotte.

It is more than North Carolina's politics that make it unique, however. In the middle of the state you have Charlotte -- the second largest banking center in the country after New York. The headquarters for financial powerhouses like Bank of America and Wachovia, as well as six other Fortune 500 companies, Charlotte has plenty of money, lots of transplanted northerners, and a booming population.

Directly north, Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill form the Research Triangle Park. Here, you will find the largest concentration of Ph.D.'s in the country, and it is the home to one of IBM's largest operations in the world and one of GlaxoSmithKline's largest research and development centers. This area is a research powerhouse and boasts a number of large research universities -- among them Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University -- making it a haven for academics.

Both of these cities are a far cry from the rest of North Carolina, and voters in each area are looking for different things. Out west, the mountainous region of North Carolina is home to people who largely want government out of their lives. Although Asheville and the well-known Biltmore Estate sit in these mountains, it is mostly rural areas with modest, remote homes.

AND THEN THERE is the east. Eastern North Carolinians are proud to be from the east (you'll see the ENC stickers on their cars) and eastern North Carolinians love their politics. It is often said that elections are won and lost in the east and it is rumored that candidates who even murmur to staff that they are sick of eating barbecue on the campaign trail will automatically lose their race.

Eastern North Carolinians expect a lot out of their candidates. Candidates have to be prepared to go to tiny towns and rural farming areas and spend time at pig pickin's with small groups of people. And eastern North Carolina is Dixiecrat headquarters. They don't care how well you'll do in the general election or what you have accomplished. They want to know what you will accomplish for them.

It's hard to please the people of North Carolina, mostly because they are so varied and so diverse. But North Carolinians are loyal people. Thrive here and you can count on the state to pull through for you.

My advice to the candidates is, enjoy your time in North Carolina. There aren't many places left in the world where you will meet people that kind and that polite. It is a rich, vibrant, engaged state. It is no wonder so many people work so hard to run and make the state even better than it already is.

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About the Author

Russ Ferguson is a lawyer and writer in Charlotte, North Carolina.