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The Changing Political Identity of Charlotte

Often the largest cities in conservative states like North Carolina are more liberal leaning. But the Charlotte region is an anomaly. It's a Republican stronghold in federal races with a Republican Mayor, while Democrats prevail in other local races. Pollster Tom Jensen with Public Policy Polling in Raleigh says "there's no doubt that Charlotte is the most politically complex region of the state." So, think of the Charlotte region like a jelly donut. Mecklenburg County is the gooey blueberry core where city dwellers and African Americans help Democrats own 44 percent of registered voters, compared to 30 percent for Republicans. Democrats control both the city council and county commission. And even though Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is a Republican, a recent poll suggests he owes his longevity in office to his appeal with moderates and white Democrats. Presidentially speaking, Mecklenburg County margins are generally close: Kerry won in 2004. Bush in 2000. So that's Mecklenburg County, in a fruit-filled nutshell. But get beyond the center of the donut - into Charlotte's fast growing suburb - and things are much different. "That has consistently been about the most Republican part of the state," says Pollster Tom Jensen. Public Policy Polling recently completed a survey of two-thousand North Carolina residents and found that newcomers vote differently than natives to the state - especially Democrats. Jensen says non-natives support Obama for President at a 25-percent greater clip than Democrats who were born here. For years, North Carolina voters have been predominantly Democrat, but that hasn't translated to Presidential elections. "Anywhere up to maybe 30 to 40 percent of registered Democrats in a given election are voting for Republican for President. So they're sort of more Democrats on paper when it actually comes to the ballot box," says Jensen. "But among newer Democrats who are coming into the state, they're actually voting for Democrats up and down the ballot." Jensen says rural areas are seeing some of the most dramatic shifts where "much more suburban, moderate to moderately liberal voters are coming in and replacing a lot of your very conservative Democrats who tended to be in the rural parts of the state." "And also more of these voters who are independents and who go from race to race and choose which party they're going to vote for," adds Jensen. Cabarrus County is one of those fast growing suburban areas of Charlotte. It grew 20 percent in last six years according to Census figures and while Republicans still reign on the voter registration polls, Democrats are narrowing the gap and unaffiliated voters are gaining on both. At Louis' Grille in Harrisburg, the breakfast clientele is a snap shot of how things are changing. Not only has diner Don Brantley not made up his mind this presidential campaign, he says "I'm totally confused at this point." Brantley moved here from Georgia 8-years ago, and says he tends to lean Republican, but is unaffiliated and open to voting either way. Two tables over, Josh Ritch and Don Mylam chat over the remains of their morning grits. Ritch was born and raised a staunch Republican in Harrisburg and says he's voting for McCain. Mylam moved from Kentucky five years ago and says he's more independent. I just feel like there's more freedom in how you vote, and I want to be able to have that freedom," says Mylam. Since January, unaffiliated voters have increased more than 10 percent in North Carolina, making them the fastest growing segment of voters. In addition to making Charlotte's suburbs more competitive for Democrats, the recent poll also suggests independent voters are boosting Republican Pat McCory's race for Governor. Pollster Tom Jensen says left-leaning Charlotte voters are going for a split ticket of Obama and McCrory, more than anywhere else in the state. "If you're coming here, particularly from up north or from California, Pat McCory is someone you might have more in common with than Bev Perdue," explains Jensen. "And McCrory's definitely got a reputation as a strong moderate, so his unique appeal is sort of bucking the tide of this overall trend." After all of this talk about newcomers to North Carolina making the state more Democratic, it's important to note that Jensen's survey found that more than half of North Carolinians are still native born. And that leaves plenty of Democrats like Bobby McGee. "I vote Republican President," says McGee, as he jams a huge wad of chewing tobacco in his lower lip as he waits for his wife in the parking lot of a Gastonia shopping mall. He says he registered as a Democrat because his mother was one. But he voted for Eisenhower that year, and Republicans ever since. "Most of the time the Republicans got the best president, I think. Least they have the backbones. Don't raise taxes on me all the time, spending money, throwing money away. That's all a Democrat's fit for," says McGee. So why doesn't he change his registration to Republican? "I might do that, now!" McGee says, laughing. If he, and others like him, changed their registration, it would make things a little less confusing for candidates eyeing their chances in the Charlotte area. But changing demographics suggest left-leaning newcomers are on their way to outnumbering voters like Bobby McGee.