Why you should care
Because conservatism could be eating its own tail in some places.
This story is part of a series about purple states— those coveted places in America that could just swing to either side of the aisle in November.
The pitch was called “The Carolina Comeback,” and the man captaining it was none other than North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory. The technocrat conservative has mostly delivered on his promise to bring jobs to the Tar Heel State and today, his re-election campaign serves up top accolades like hors d’oeuvres — with the appetizers having included the lowest unemployment rate in eight years, or the largest manufacturing employment in the Southeast. All of which lead up to the main course, when North Carolina became the fourth-fastest growing economy (GDP-wise) in the country from when McCrory took over in 2013 to 2015.
Yet McCrory is locked in the political battle of his life just months from November, with polls showing a race within the margin of error, highly unusual for an incumbent with a sterling economic record. Yes, one likely culprit is his controversial signing of House Bill 2, aka “the Bathroom Bill,” which critics say discriminates against transgender people (his camp says the race was “always going to be close” and that the Charlotte city council brought up the bathrooms issue, not McCrory). But it’s not just happening in North Carolina. Across the country, states with traditionally red moorings and high job growth are hewing more purple than in the past, including GOP strongholds such as Georgia and Utah. While the vast majority of this change can be attributed to changing demographics and an unpopular presidential nominee, there’s another possibility: that bringing in jobs might actually be hurting Republicans.
— Pat McCrory (@PatMcCroryNC) June 23, 2016
From North Carolina’s Research Triangle and the Northern Virginia Beltway to Georgia’s Hollywood of the South, fresh workers have flooded battleground states in recent years. Through a wide variety of tax incentives and public funding plans, conservative legislatures are offering up their states for new employees, who in many cases work in liberal-leaning fields such as tech and entertainment. “Unleashing the economy” appeals to all voters, McCrory spokesman Ricky Diaz says, and the governor has pushed for a crowdfunding law that will appeal to even more tech and research types. But these transplants, by virtue of having jobs and, often, higher levels of education, are more likely to exert their influence at the voting booth. Which raises the question: Could economic conservatism be eating its own tail politically by attracting left-leaning workers?
“The answer is yes,” says JP Landman, a Harvard-educated political and economic analyst. To be sure, the effects are more felt in local elections than state ones, thanks to the outsized impact even one new business can have in a small community. Still, labor force growth can matter in bigger races, so long as the margin is thin. In the last four years, North Carolina has added about 400,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That may seem insignificant, though 4.5 million Tar Heel voters only chose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by roughly 100,000 votes in 2012. North Carolina also has one of the fastest growing populations in the nation, and if it goes blue this time around, likely booting McCrory out in the process, the irony won’t be hard to miss: “You bring in workers,” Landman says, “and they vote for your opponent.”
Shifts are occurring within other red states that are attracting outside investment, which may turn voters against the status quo.
It wouldn’t be the first time, says Matt Welch, editor-at-large of the libertarian-leaning Reason magazine. Growing up in Long Beach, California, Welch remembers how Golden Staters fled during the “shit show of riots and fires and earthquakes” in the ’90s and settled throughout the mountain West states, in places such as Nevada, Arizona and Oregon. They brought with them a politics that was “a lot less conservative,” Welch notes. Young workers in fields like technology or entertainment might not be perfect Democrats today, but most reject any semblance of bigotry, a perceived fault of the right, which has staked its platform on anti-immigration sentiment and candidates. “They are particularly allergic to people who give that off,” Welch says.
Shifts are occurring within other red states that are attracting outside investment, which may turn voters against the status quo. Georgia has cozied up with the film industry, attracting $1.7 billion and 248 projects in 2015. While that workforce of a couple thousand makes up only a small portion of total voters, it speaks to a larger trend of industry-friendly policies that led the Peach State to be named “Best State to Do Business” for the last three years by Site Selection magazine, an economic development publication. Yet Georgia’s House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams tells OZY that her state could become “a Democratic haven,” and with good reason. Political scientists say even this red clay could be in play by 2020, although most emphasize that it’s not an increase in liberal job seekers but in Black and Latino voters that remains the biggest driver of change.
“Hollywood of the South” pic.twitter.com/kNui9odBjv— Everything Georgia (@GAFollowers) April 25, 2015
A similar story could be told of Virginia, which is also seeing a demographic shift favorable to Democrats, as well as a job boom. Virginia has a Democratic governor but a statehouse that’s been Republican since 2000, and with those policies, it’s seen faster economic growth than the national average through March of this year. “Technologically proficient workers are in strikingly high demand,” wrote The Washington Post’s Aaron Gregg at the time. Here, too, economic success hasn’t translated to Republican wins. Before Obama, the last Democrat to win Virginia twice was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944, but Virginia projects to remain narrowly blue again this election.
Incentive-laden economic packages and business appeal are hardly the sole domain of conservatives — in a recent survey, half of small business owners called themselves Republican, while 21 percent reported as Democrat and another 19 percent as Independent. In North Carolina, particularly, state Democrats argue that it was their foresight on funding public education and universities that’s led to its modern renaissance. Voters could have a number of unrelated reasons for rejecting the party and its nominee, argues Dave Miranda, communications director for the North Carolina Democratic Party. “People who value jobs, economic growth and having a president who isn’t a racist, sexist, failed businessman like Donald Trump tend to lean Democrat,” he says. (The Trump campaign has rejected the racist label previously but didn’t respond for comment.) “That includes a lot of young working professionals, yes.”