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Editorial: A changing electorate

North Carolina is often cited as a “battleground” state, meaning many political experts and pollsters think it’s in play between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. But what does that mean in terms of its electoral composition?
To quote a pop culture phrase, it’s complicated. You can get a sense of just how complicated from a new DataNet report published by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program on Public Life. The program’s director, Ferrel Guillory, is a veteran journalist and longtime student of Southern politics. Here are some findings from the report on the N.C. electorate. (You can find it online at www.southnow.org.)
• North Carolina has a heavily majority-white electorate. But the white share has now declined to slightly more than seven out of 10 voters. African-Americans now account for two out of 10; Latinos, Asians and other ethnicities represented around 6 percent of the electorate in 2008, and perhaps somewhat more in 2012.
• Before 2008, conventional wisdom held that Democratic statewide candidates needed at least 40 percent of white voters to win. In 2008, Democrats discovered they could win with somewhat less than 40 percent. 
• The influence of the baby-boom generation shows up in the substantial increase in voters in the 45-59 age range, from 25 percent in 1996 to 39 percent in 2008. More than half the electorate four years ago was 45 years and older.
• The electorate divides in half at about the $50,000 a year income level. Obama won well more than half the votes of people with incomes $50,000 and below, and he won nearly half of voters earning $200,000 and above. Republican John McCain did better among voters in the heart of the middle class.
• North Carolina is a state without a majority party. About four out of 10 voters think of themselves as Democrats; somewhat fewer as Republicans. Neither major party can act with assurance that it represents more than 50 percent of the electorate.
• The segment of voters identifying as independents has risen above two out of 10. But bear in mind that most independents actually perform as either Democratic or Republicans. The 2012 election will give fresh evidence of how many voters act independently and split their ticket.
• While the report describes North Carolina as having a “moderate-to-conservative electorate,” it notes that has unraveled somewhat since the mid-1990s. One result is a decline in moderates, a Tar Heel reflection of the widening political divisions we see on the national stage. 

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