How North Carolina Became Red Again

The Tar Heel State's move to the political left has ended as quickly as it started. Here are five reasons.

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Voters in North Carolina get instructions during early voting in October 2012. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- One might shrug off the sweeping voting restrictions (pdf) approved last week in North Carolina as typical of a Southern state under Republican control. But look again: Unlike many of its neighbors, the Tar Heel State had been well down the path of progressivism for several years before the GOP shut it down during this year's legislative session.

Indeed, North Carolina had broken away from its regional neighbors by expanding access to the polls, which helped increase minority-voter turnout. A strong and steady flow of newcomers to the state brought more open-minded political views to bear on local elections. The state even recorded one of the nation's biggest populations of gay couples, with a whopping 118 percent gain reported in the 2010 census.

Some of the changes were occurring elsewhere in the South, but not to the degree of shifting the voting patterns of an entire state. In North Carolina, however, the lurch toward progressive politics has ended as quickly as it started, demonstrated by the state Legislature's passage of a conservative wish list that includes a draconian voter-ID requirement and the elimination or reduction of measures such as early voting.

How did it happen? Here are five key factors that triggered the GOP backlash:

1. A state of change: A state made up mostly of native-born whites and blacks, and with a shrinking population, became a hot destination for people of all kinds, from outside the South and even the United States. Many of them brought more-moderate opinions to North Carolina's right-of-center politics.

From 2000 to 2010, North Carolina had the fifth-highest population growth (pdf) of any state, adding 1.5 million people. Along the way, the share of minorities rose by 5 percentage points to 35 percent. The Hispanic population soared by 111 percent, or more than 420,000, to 800,120. Later in the decade, North Carolina was the second-most-popular destination for people relocating from other states, particularly New York and elsewhere outside the South.

Family dynamics changed, too, which helped nudge the political needle to the left. Unmarried couples living together increased by 55 percent to more than 222,000. The state recorded one of the biggest increases in the number of gay couples. Homeowners living alone topped 1 million, up from 8.6 percent to 27 percent of all homeowners. And those who have never been married grew to nearly a third of the population.

2. Early voting: The South has traditionally resisted efforts to expand access to the polls, but North Carolina in 2007 became the first Southern state to enact early voting. In 2008 a surprising 55 percent of all ballots were cast at early-voting sites, with black women making up the largest share of early voters. In 2012, 56 percent of all voters voted early.

3. The Obama effect: It wasn't just that Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1976. It's that his candidacy spurred a convergence of ongoing demographic changes to shift partisan and gender politics. Blacks (a record 72 percent) for the first time voted at a higher rate than whites (69 percent). Women also had a higher turnout rate than men and voted in greater numbers. Voters elected the state's first female governor, Democrat Beverly Perdue, and a record 44 women to the state Legislature. Another successful campaign was Kay Hagan's, who defeated incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole to break the Republicans' 35-year grip on a seat previously held by segregationist Jesse Helms.

4. The Tea Party wave: The 2010 midterm elections were an anti-government conservative reaction to 2008, giving Republicans control not only of the U.S. House of Representatives but also of a majority of state legislatures, including North Carolina's. Republican voters in the state turned out at 51 percent, Democrats dropped to 45 percent and independents voted at 33 percent. White voters turned out at a higher rate than blacks, although black voting in the past few North Carolina midterm cycles has risen faster than that of whites.