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Whether Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan holds her seat on November will likely be determined by what happens in two areas of the state: Mecklenburg County and the Research Triangle.
In the last few elections, North Carolina has become a swing state in large part because of rapid growth in these two areas: Mecklenburg is home to the city of Charlotte, where the Democrats held their 2012 political convention, and the Research Triangle is a collection of cities that house major universities.
The primary reason the Tar Heel State has changed from a solid Republican state to a purple one is because of the large number of transplants from elsewhere. In 2000, about 8 million people lived in North Carolina. But a decade later, the population increased by 1.5 million, or 20 percent. By 2013, the state had added another 300,000 people, according to the Census, bringing the state’s population to 9.8 million people.
The growth has not been uniform throughout the state, however, and the biggest increases have occurred in the Democratic leaning areas of the Research Triangle and Mecklenburg County. In 2000, they held about 26 percent of the state’s population; they now hold 31 percent.
You can see two areas on this map located in an around the counties that are categorized at Big Cities in the American Communities Project, a journalism/political science effort based at the American University School of Public Affairs.
In the end all that growth is crucial because the vote coming from those counties tends to be very good for Democrats. In 2012, President Barack Obama won 56 percent of the vote coming out of Research Triangle, as noted recently in the Wall Street Journal. He captured more than 60 percent of the vote out of Mecklenberg. But he still lost that election by 2 points. Additional growth over the past two years in those areas should mean good things for Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, who leads narrowly in most polls.
But midterms and presidential elections bring out very different electorates and that’s particularly true for the big Democratic strongholds in North Carolina.
Research Triangle houses a large college-student population – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest – and college students and recent grads don’t usually turnout as well for midterms. In both 2008 and 2012, high youth turnout years, voters under 25 made up eight and nine percent of the voters respectively.
In Mecklenburg, which hosts a large Democratic constituency in African Americans – the group makes up 32 percent of the population in Mecklenburg versus only 22 percent of the state as a whole. But again, the African American vote often drops off in midterm elections. There were 448,000 votes out of Mecklenburg in 2012 and 410,000 in 2008, but that number dropped by nearly half in 2010 where only 227,000 voted.
If Hagan is to win, she needs to boost the African American and youth vote much closer to 2012 voting levels.