Tools
Ideas | The Atlantic
Ideas | The Atlantic
How We Got Voters to Change Their Mind
Last year, before the pandemic, I stood on the front porch of a house near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, while the homeowner, a former military man, heaved pro-Trump talking points at me. His anger was palpable. He was upset about the state of health care. He blamed immigrants. With a clipboard in my hand, I listened carefully to everything he had to say.I am the director of People’s Action, an organization of working-class and low-income people. I was in Pennsylvania as part of deep-canvass efforts targeting rural and small-town voters, testing whether patient, nonjudgmental conversations about race, immigration, health care, and the economy can help people reexamine their views, and perhaps even lead them to vote for Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump.By November 3, People’s Action will have logged more than 200,000 deep-canvassing conversations with conflicted voters in battleground states. They don’t always go well. The man in Harrisburg? He didn’t change his mind about anything. I’d swear that some nights a hard-headed Sean Hannity answers five doors or phone calls in a row. But on the best days, the discussions are transformative.So far, more than 3 percent of the voters we’ve engaged have switched from planning to vote for Donald Trump to planning to vote for Joe Biden. Even more significant, 8.5 percent of women independents—and 4.9 percent of women overall—said they planned to change their vote to Biden. David Brockman and Josh Kalla, academics who measure what helps shift hearts and minds, told me this persuasion rate is 102 times more effective than traditional electioneering efforts aimed at persuading people to change their vote. On average, these exchanges took 15 minutes. Although spending that kind of time with voters nationwide may not be possible, and would challenge much about how candidates campaign, the lessons we learned—of listening and showing empathy—are important to recognize in this divisive election.[Sarah Longwell: Why people who hate Trump stick with him]Typically, when volunteers engage in a canvassing campaign, the effort basically amounts to verbal leafleting. They make a one- to two-minute targeted pitch for a candidate or a ballot initiative, and then they leave or hang up the phone.In a deep canvass, we want to have a real conversation. To get people to open up, we start by asking the basics: How are you doing? How are you holding up in this global pandemic? We respond not with canned answers, but with more questions: Oh, you’re watching football? Who is your team? How is your family doing? We’re really asking, and we really listen. Eventually, a true back-and-forth begins, one where we exchange stories about our lives and what is at stake for ourselves and for our communities in this election. Usually, by the end, what emerges is some kind of internal conflict—why the person is frustrated, why she can’t decide who to vote for, or why she is skeptical of Biden.Recently, one of our volunteers, Angela, reached a man by phone while he was at work on a construction site (during the pandemic, we’ve switched from door-knocking to phone-banking). When Angela asked how he was doing, he initially said he was fine, but when Angela shared how much she’s been struggling and how worried she’s been about the pandemic, the conversation changed. Angela said that her husband’s grandmother had died in a nursing home—along with 50 other people—and he opened up about his wife coming down with COVID-19 and about the time that she called him at work to say she was struggling to breathe. This led to a conversation about health care and the need for good leadership. At the beginning of the call, he said he had no plans to vote but was ready to cast a ballot when he hung up, and Angela ended the call feeling a depth of connection.Research has shown time and again that people vote from an emotional place. It’s not so much that facts don’t matter. It’s that facts and talking points do not change minds. And arguing opinions at the start of a conversation about politics causes the interview subject to keep his defensive, partisan walls up and prevents him from connecting with the canvasser.We don't try to directly persuade people to change their minds on a candidate or an issue. Rather, we create intimacy, in the faith that people have an ability to reexamine their politics, and their long-term worldview, if given the right context. We’ve found that when people start to see the dissonance between what they believe and what they actually want, their views change—many of them come around to a more progressive perspective. For example, if a woman says she believes that immigrants are the main problem in our society, but reveals that her top personal concern is health care, then we talk about whether immigrants have anything to do with that worry. When a man says he wants to feel safe, we ask questions about what, in particular, makes him feel unsafe. If he answers COVID-19, then we talk about which candidate might be better suited to handle the pandemic.[Peter Wehner: Why Trump supporters can’t admit who he really is]Throughout our effort, I’ve been struck by how willing people are to be vulnerable with our canvassers. Amazingly, more than 85 percent of those we engage in an actual conversation have shared something with which they are deeply struggling. In these personal exchanges, we are embracing empathy for people who are sometimes wildly different from ourselves, and empathy, it turns out, is an extremely effective conversion tool.On one recent evening, a volunteer named Judith had a long phone call with an older voter. In the beginning, the voter talked about being so stressed that he was unable to think clearly and couldn’t make up his mind whom to vote for, because he felt uneasy about both Trump and Biden. When the voter realized that Judith wasn't trying to "force Biden down his throat," he opened up about his anxieties: family finances, his grandkids’ health. Judith told him about her concerns for her own grandchildren. By the end of the call, he stated that he was leaning strongly toward voting for Biden, and he even thanked her for helping him clear his mind.Such discussions are not transformative just for the people on whose doors we’re knocking (or whose phones we’re on the other end of)—they are also transformative for the canvassers. In our podcast, To See Each Other, about rural communities that are often described as Trump country, our organizer Caitlin Homrich-Knieling shared her experience of having deep-canvass conversations about immigration in rural Michigan. We’re strangers, she said, “starting out with a blank slate, and in that conversation, we’re showing them so much care and empathy about their own hard times and asking so many questions about their own life. We really honor their story and their wisdom and their dignity.”The connections she made while knocking on doors made her see that she was not bringing that same spirit—of listening and radical empathy—to her relationships back home, in the state’s upper peninsula, where she and family and friends didn’t always see eye to eye. That realization has changed her relationship with her mother, her aunt, and her childhood best friend. Now, when they talk about politics, race in America, or immigration, they approach their talks with a willingness to learn and listen.Overall, our conversations have not modeled the broader narrative of division that this election tells. They show that on the individual level, we all want to understand one another—how we have come to see the world, what we are up against—and we all want to be heard. It may not be possible for everyone to spend hours listening to the stories of strangers. But as we chart a path for a new America, we must see listening as an essential political strategy, and a way to create the future we all want.
2 d
theatlantic.com
Hate Wokeness? Vote Biden.
A number of influential commentators who firmly opposed Donald Trump in 2016 recently announced their intention to vote for him in 2020. Nearly all of them, including James Lindsay, Danielle Pletka, and Ben Shapiro, blamed illiberalism on the left. As Shapiro said on his popular show, he is planning to vote for Trump because “Democrats have lost their fucking minds.”Concerns about illiberal tendencies on the left are not made up out of thin air. Many Democratic politicians have not been as full-throated in their opposition to left-wing political violence as they should be. Parts of the left now seek far-reaching censorship in social media, advocate for employees to be fired for expressing conservative opinions, and are openly hostile to free speech. The likely future mayor of Portland, Oregon, has appeared to glorify mass murderers such as Che Guevara and Mao Zedong on the campaign trail.[Read: The rise of the violent left]But the fact is that Trump presents a much greater danger to key constitutional values, and does more than anyone else to lend apparent credibility to extreme forms of protest as well as an unremittingly negative appraisal of America. Voting for Trump to stem the rising tide of illiberalism is about as pure an example of cutting off your nose to spite your face as political life can afford.Most Americans at all attentive to politics can recite a long list of Trump’s verbal attacks on democracy. Trump has called for both Hillary Clinton, his competitor in 2016, and Joe Biden, his current adversary, to be locked up. He claims that the 2016 election was marred by fraud, even though he won, and now refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose. Whenever he has clashed with judges, civil servants, or public-health experts, he has called their legitimacy into question. Trump routinely denigrates journalists and opposition politicians, and spreads racist memes.Apologists who say that Trump barks much louder than he bites make an important point. While Trump’s Twitter feed would make any dictator proud, the actions of his government have been less nakedly autocratic. Trump has not tried to imprison Biden or shut down The New York Times. And although he has repeatedly denounced the judiciary in ways that undermine the constitutional responsibility of judges, he has mostly proved willing to be bound by their rulings.But if Trump’s words are worse than his actions, his actions have still been outrageous. Trump has repeatedly interfered in the processes of awarding federal contracts and approving corporate mergers to punish companies that have dared to criticize him. He has made illegal payments, possibly using campaign contributions, to women with whom he has had affairs. He has fired inspectors general of federal departments when they have uncovered wrongdoing by members of his administration. He has engaged in blatant nepotism and awarded his son-in-law the highest level of security clearance over the objections of professionals. He has invoked a fake national emergency to redirect federal funds toward a political pet project, the wall at the southern border. He has used the resources of his office to boost companies of friends and allies, and channeled significant sums of money into his own properties. He has separated thousands of children from their parents, and has lost track of hundreds of those parents.[Read: How will separated kids find their families?]These attacks on America’s constitutional traditions don’t mean that Trump is about to pronounce himself emperor for life. Nor, as Graeme Wood has recently argued, do they mean that he will manage to stay in office if he loses the upcoming election. But they should make removing him from office the top priority for any voter who is genuinely concerned about the rise of illiberal forces.Many of the most worrying tendencies on the left stem from two intellectual mistakes. The first is to focus so tightly on the country’s flaws that its strengths become invisible, and its institutions dispensable. The second is to believe that the right poses such an imminent danger that any form of resistance against it is justifiable, even if it involves violence.Trump of course disagrees with both of these mistakes. But because he is genuinely dangerous and extraordinarily polarizing, he makes it much harder for establishment institutions, as well as moderate voices on the left, to hold their ground against these fallacies.The president has, again and again, incited racial tensions in the hopes of making partisan gains. If he wins reelection, the idea that racism not only shaped the country’s past but continues to define its essence in the present will become much more difficult to refute. If, however, a clear majority of Americans turn on Trump, rejecting his racist remarks, those of us who still retain faith in America’s perfectibility and seek to preserve its core institutions can more easily win the argument.Similarly, a Biden victory would make it easier, not harder, to push back against antifa types who think engaging in violent tactics to resist the Trump administration is justifiable. So long as citizens can contest political injustice at the ballot box, there can be no excuse for burning down government buildings. But Trump’s penchant for cruelty is the best possible recruitment tool for those who want to fight fire with even more fire. When the sense of terror that Trump has understandably instilled in many citizens begins to ebb, so too will the misguided hesitance of many Americans to criticize violent extremists pretending to fight for a noble cause.When Trump was first elected, some progressives feared that he would normalize expressions of hatred and prejudice. America would experience a “preference cascade” in which ordinary people change their opinions to align with the prevailing social cues. The country would tack far to the right.[Adam Serwer: Trump is struggling to run against a white guy]Far from moving to the right on key social and cultural issues such as immigration, race relations, and same-sex marriage, however, Americans—especially white Americans—have moved to the left. The proportions of voters who believe that immigrants are good for the country, that members of ethnic minorities suffer from significant discrimination, and that everyone should enjoy the right to marry have all gone up. Scholars have found that this counterreaction to Trump is no outlier: More often than not, public opinion moves against the president.Those who worry about illiberalism on the left should take this pattern to heart. According to commentators such as Shapiro, progressives already hold power in universities and the mainstream media, in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. If they also capture Congress and the White House, they would gain virtually unified control of American politics and culture. But fears of a Biden presidency leading to a woke takeover misunderstand the way public opinion moves in America. Because Trump’s ample failings have given the most misguided claims of the far left a superficial veneer of plausibility, Trump himself has been the far left’s biggest ally. And if the Biden administration does overreach on key cultural issues, that will likely set the stage for a course correction—a cascade back to moderation.If you want to combat illiberalism, casting a vote for Donald Trump is the worst possible thing you can do.
2 d
theatlantic.com
Countrypolitan Counties Will Decide the Republican Party’s Fate
MONROE, N.C.—When he was 9, Jesse Helms got his first job, sweeping floors at the Monroe Enquirer. His father was both police chief and fire chief in this Cotton Belt town, but Jesse’s career in journalism would take him far away—first to the state capitol, in Raleigh, and then to Washington, D.C., where he was a firebrand Republican dubbed “Senator No” for his skill at obstruction and resistance to change. Helms left the area as a teenager and never lived here again, but he often talked about his hometown of Monroe.Union County remained a stronghold of traditional conservatism after Helms left. Monroe was the site of pitched battles over civil rights in the 1960s. Today the streets are sleepy, with a smattering of shops circling a soaring Victorian brick courthouse, a Confederate monument on the lawn. On a sunny morning last week, the Commodores’ “Easy” wafted from speakers around downtown, which only emphasized how empty the streets were. Elegant old homes surround the area, and beyond the town limits is farmland.But even Senator No couldn’t keep Monroe entirely frozen in time, which may be why a portrait of President Jimmy Carter, a frequent Helms nemesis, hangs over the bar at East Frank Superette and Kitchen downtown.“That’s a saint for you!” says Cress Barnes, whose family runs the restaurant, a funky combination bodega, café, and craft-beer bar that would be at home in any hip neighborhood in America. Barnes, a self-described socialist with a pixie cut, beanie, and chunky glasses, warmly greets everyone coming through the door. Her family moved to Monroe from Charlotte, a half hour northwest, four years ago and opened East Frank a year and a half ago. They liked their old neighborhood, a liberal bubble of pride flags and Hillary Clinton supporters, but fell in love with a historic house and decided to move out.[Derek Thompson: American migration patterns should terrify the GOP]“The further we came out, my kids were like, ‘Mom, we’re counting Trump signs on the way out of town,’” recalls Barnes, an unaffiliated voter who is backing the Democrat Joe Biden this year, though he wasn’t her first choice. “And I’m like, ‘It’s gonna be fine.’ My husband was like, ‘Listen, they want the same things that we want; it’s just a different way.’”And it has been fine. The restaurant’s clientele is mixed, and many of them know where the proprietors stand, but usually nobody brings up politics. One customer used to try to start debates about President Donald Trump, but finally gave up; a few have groused about having to wear a mask, but mostly people get along. That held even this summer, when there was a Black Lives Matter march in town.“If you’ve ever done any research on Monroe, racism is a deep, deep vein that runs through this county,” Barnes told me. “A lot of people showed up, and it was awesome, and everyone was kind; it was peaceful; it was great. And we had an open dialogue about taking the Confederate monument and moving it to a museum.”Union County is what one scholar terms a “countrypolitan” place: Under federal government designations, it lies within a metropolitan area, but it also has a strong rural and agricultural history. For the most part, it doesn’t look like a cookie-cutter suburb, nor is it impoverished. In fact, Union is North Carolina’s wealthiest county, according to the Census Bureau. There are places like it around the United States. They are distinct from rural areas, which are mostly Republican, and cities, which are heavily Democratic; many voters in these places are neither die-hard Trump fans nor urban liberals. That makes them pivotal counties, in 2020 and in the future.Everyone agrees that Union County is changing. The question is how it’s changing, and how fast. There’s no doubt that Republicans will carry the county up and down the ticket this year—Carter, ensconced at East Frank, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win here, back in 1980—but the GOP’s overall success in the state will hinge largely on how big a margin it is able to run up in exurban counties such as this one. Democrats’ control of inner-ring suburbs continues to strengthen, and the future of the Republican Party nationally depends on keeping firm control over places like Union County.“I think it’s trying to change,” Barnes said. “But I think there’s a lot of resistance to change; I really do. I don’t know if it’s just the grasp of the good-ol’-boy network, or if it’s just, We don’t want things to be different than what they are. Yet sometimes change is good. It’s hard, but it’s good.”Cress Barnes at East Frank Superette, Monroe, NC.The politics of the Old North State used to break along regional lines, but these days it’s easier to think about density as the divider. Urban centers across North Carolina, such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem, are reliably and heavily Democratic. Rural areas are heavily Republican, though there are pockets of Black rural voters who are Democrats. What’s interesting is everything in between. Political reporters looking to understand the state over the past few years have often focused on suburbs in Mecklenburg County, around Charlotte, and Wake County, around Raleigh. But Democrats already have those counties more or less locked up.[David A. Graham: Red state, blue city]Perhaps more telling are exurban counties such as Union or Johnston, just outside Raleigh. Union County is tough to pigeonhole. Starting my tour in Monroe, I drove through woods and fields to the village of Mineral Springs, and then on to Waxhaw, a small mill town that has reinvented itself as a cute boutique-and-antiques-shop destination. As I headed north to Indian Trail, closer to the Mecklenburg County line, the landscape became markedly more affluent—gleaming, white-fenced farms; gated estates; luxury SUVs—until I reached an area with all the markers of placeless American suburbia: townhome subdivisions, strip malls with pizza joints and vape shops, and Target-anchored malls.Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a Democratic consultant, calls Union County a “countrypolitan” jurisdiction, borrowing a term used to label a 1970s movement in country music. (I teach journalism as an adjunct at Sanford.) These areas fit under governmental designations of metropolitan areas, but they’re not purely suburban, and tend to have a more rural and agricultural heritage. McCorkle says these areas are typically politically fluid.“It certainly is not urban liberal—it ain’t urban liberal at all—but it is not necessarily another word for right-wing,” McCorkle told me. “It’s not a bunch of bitter, left-behind people.” Union County is predominantly Republican, but these aren’t the country-club Republicans who have edged away from Trump, nor are they the evangelical ones who have embraced him.Dan Barry, a former chair of the Union County GOP and elected official in Weddington, told me that the prevailing political mentality is simple. “When I was the mayor pro tem here, one of the guys that was coaching me for the election said, ‘People move to Union County for three things: low taxes, great schools, and they want to be left alone. They want government to leave them alone,’” he said. “And I think that is still true today.”Outside Monroe High School, an early-voting site, I struck up a conversation with Christina Helms, who was handing out a Republican sample ballot. Helms was campaigning for a friend who is running for school board, on which Helms is wrapping up a second and final term. Behind us stood a big, carefully maintained facility.“Union County is a conservative county, with conservative values, Christian values,” she told me. But she’s proud of the public-school system. “It is the feather in the cap of Union County, and we have every intention of keeping it that way. It’s important that we keep that momentum and that upward trajectory of all the things that we are doing for the schools and for these kids. That’s what it’s all about.”When Jesse Helms was a boy, Union County was reliable Democratic territory, as it had been since the Civil War. “I remember my mother telling me when I was in my early teens, ‘Around here the November election doesn’t really matter. Things are decided in the Democratic primary,” Frank McGuirt told me, with a slow country drawl that marks him as a native. “We seldom saw any local Republicans file for office.”McGuirt is a repository of local Democratic Party knowledge. He is, by his own account, “older than dirt,” though really only 74, and his father was a county commissioner for 18 years. McGuirt followed his father into public office, serving as sheriff for 24 years. But his party’s fortunes began to change in the 1960s.“Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act caused some of our more radical, redneck—I won’t get too descriptive—elements to abandon the party,” McGuirt said. Meanwhile, a growing number of outsiders was moving to Union County, bringing more moderate but devoted Republicans.[Read: How the pandemic silenced the nation’s biggest governor’s race]“Somebody remarked, ‘They’re going to be surprised to learn this is Jesse Helms territory!’” McGuirt said. “Jesse and I were good friends, but we didn’t have much in agreement politically,” he chuckled.It took years for the full effect of the GOP growth to be felt, but by the time McGuirt retired, in 2002, he was one of the last two Democrats left in countywide office. “Up until about 1990, we had two Republicans elected to the county commission,” he said. “I just hadn’t thought about a Republican winning an election in Union County, and now the whole courthouse is full of them.”Even in 2008, when Barack Obama narrowly won North Carolina in the presidential election, he won only 36 percent of the vote in Union, to the Republican John McCain’s 63. Four years later, Mitt Romney retook the state, and improved on McCain’s numbers. In 2016, Donald Trump won North Carolina by 3.7 points, but blew Hillary Clinton out, 63 to 33, in Union County.Those numbers echo the results in similar counties. According to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College and a close watcher of North Carolina politics, Trump and the GOP Senator Richard Burr won by a 2-to-1 ratio in outer suburban counties like Union in 2016, while losing by two to one in urban centers and running almost even with Democrats in the places in between, the suburbs in urban counties. (The Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper was able to outperform his ticket mates, taking 37 percent of the outer-suburban vote; he won his race by barely 10,000 votes statewide.)[Read: The North Carolina governor’s race is finally over]Since 2016, Trump’s standing with suburban voters, especially white women, has deteriorated. A progressive wave in the suburbs powered big Democratic gains in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, and those voters appear likely to vote for Democrats again in 2020. But Trump has lost ground in the exurbs too. An analysis by the American Communities Project at George Washington University found that exurban counties like Union went for Trump by an average of 18 points. As of late September, however, Trump’s edge (according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) was down to seven points.Bitzer says the threshold to watch in Union County is roughly 60 percent: If Republicans win more than that percentage of the vote, it’s going to be a good election for them up and down the ballot. But if Democrats can eat into that margin, it bodes well for the party in not only the presidential race but also Cal Cunningham’s attempt to unseat Senator Thom Tillis (also a tight race) and Cooper’s reelection bid (in which he is favored to win). Only once in recent history have Democrats managed to hold Republicans to less than 60 percent. In a 2018 U.S. House race, the Democrat Dan McCready ran up the score in Mecklenburg County and took 39 percent of the Union County vote, against 59 percent for the Republican Mark Harris. But the results of that election were eventually thrown out over a massive election-fraud scheme in favor of Harris. In a do-over election last year, McCready performed slightly better in Union County—but the Republican Dan Bishop got 60 percent, and won the House seat. Democrats hope those results are a portent for 2020 and beyond, while Republicans want to see them as an anomaly.“The question for this race is whether that kind of countrypolitan resistance to metropolitan liberalism, if you want to call it that, starts to crack even more,” McCorkle said.Scenes from Union CountyThe reason Union County is changing is simple math. When Helms was born, about 4,000 people lived in Monroe. Today, nearly 36,000 do. Since 1990, the overall county population has almost tripled, from about 84,000 to roughly 240,000. As I traveled around the county, I began to notice something peculiar: Virtually everyone I talked with was a transplant. Some of them had moved only recently, and others had been around for 10 years, or 20.A wave of new arrivals helped turn the county red 30 years ago, and now a new wave could reshape its politics again. In Indian Trail, Lynn Hoosier, an Army veteran and a retired police officer, told me that he’d moved down from upstate New York in 1975. Hoosier, who drives a red-white-and-blue-bedecked car with a Gadsden flag on the side, christened the “Patriot Wagon,” loved the area then, and he loves it now, though he is a little skeptical of the newer arrivals. “When I see a lot of the things being built, called condominiums and townhouses and homes and residence areas, to me it’s sounding like they’re illegally bringing in voters,” he said. It was unclear whether, or how much, he was joking.A good number of the recent arrivals are likely to be to Hoosier’s left. First, there’s the sprawl of Charlotte, as suburbs bleed out from Mecklenburg County into Union County. Suburbs are already trending heavily Democratic, and that’s unlikely to stop at the county line. Then there are people like Barnes, who are leaping well out from Charlotte into eastern Union County. Like the rest of North Carolina, Union has also seen fast growth in its Hispanic population—from 6 percent of residents in 2000 to more than 10 percent in 2010, and an estimated 11.5 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, Millennials are getting older and more established—the oldest members of the generation are now in their 40s—and moving to the suburbs.[David A. Graham: There’s no such thing as a do-over election]“The national dynamics of that generation are considerably more Democratic than any other generation on record,” Bitzer says. “To me, it just feels like time is ticking, and it’s getting close to the bell being rung.”This change is most evident in Union County’s towns. Monroe’s nonpartisan city council now consists of four registered Democrats and three registered unaffiliated voters, but no Republicans. (It also has a more concentrated Black population than the county overall.) Not only did Monroe see Black Lives Matter activity; even Waxhaw had a demonstration in June, whose turnout shocked the organizers, according to The Charlotte Observer.McGuirt recalled attending the county Democratic convention in 2018 and being stunned to see that the room was packed and that he barely knew any of the attendees. “I’m hoping that the tide will change,” he said. “I don’t know that it will this election, but maybe two years, four years, six years down the road it will.”But although liberals have put their hopes in migration to purple-red states tipping the political balance toward the Democratic Party, the influx isn’t politically homogeneous.“Not everyone moving to North Carolina is a Democrat,” says Rob Christensen, the dean of North Carolina political journalists and a former columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh. “A lot of the people moving in are Republicans or independents, but they tend to be more moderate and want a higher level of services. They don’t believe in the culture wars.”Although Millennials may be moving to urban centers such as Durham or Asheville, seeking walkable downtowns and craft breweries with lower rent than in big cities, there are also out-of-staters who are fleeing the suburbs of cities up north, and many want something different.[Read: The battle for North Carolina]“When they get here, they came here for two reasons. It’s a great place, but they were leaving somewhere they were unhappy with,” Barry told me. “So when folks from the north move here, they move here because they sold big houses in Connecticut, and they came down and they can have all this green space and they’re only 30 minutes from work. They’re used to having to drive hours to do that.”And although Mecklenburg’s encroachment threatens to change the character of western Union County, there are also folks who are trying to get away from Charlotte and find lower taxes and a more socially conservative lifestyle. “They are very cognizant of the fact that ‘we don’t want to bring’—their words, not mine—‘those crazy ideas to Union County. You got something that’s good and working. Let’s not mess it up,’” Barry said.Main Street and Windsor, Monroe, North Carolina.The trick is that what looks like “messing things up” to people like Barry looks like positive evolution to people like Barnes. The 2020 election is one occasion when these priorities will collide, though surely not the last.Republicans face two challenges this cycle. Not only could Union’s changing demographics undermine the long-standing GOP advantage, but there’s also the risk that Trump drives off existing Republicans. Bruce Spaziani was casting an early vote at the Mineral Springs Volunteer Fire and Rescue station. With an American-flag baseball cap and an arm tattoo, he looked the part of a GOP voter. And normally, he is. In 2016, Spaziani voted for Trump. This year, though, he voted straight Democrat.“I think Trump ruined it for the real Republicans—the lying, the false truths—and I felt that the Democrats weren’t as bad,” he says. Many of his friends are still staunch Republicans, and Spaziani says he has tried, and failed, to comprehend their continued support for Trump. “I’m really trying to understand why they would vote for the president. I’m a moderate conservative. I’ve always voted for what would benefit my family, as opposed to the general public. This time it was more like trying to—I know it sounds pretty weird—to try to save the country, because I really think we’re in a bad place.”That echoes the feelings of many moderate Republicans around the nation, which is evidence that even places such as Union County are becoming part of a nationalized politics. “If there’s a slip of 5 percentage points or more in those surrounding suburban counties, Trump only won this state by 3.7 percentage points,” Bitzer says. “That slippage, along with, do the urban suburbs become bluer than purple? That’s a kind of dynamic that does not bode well for Republicans in this state.”[Read: The Democrats’ coalition could fundamentally change by 2020]North Carolina Republicans dismiss this as wishful thinking by progressives. They insist that voters who are turned off by Trump haven’t left the Republican fold and will be back in the future, and they say Union County is still strong GOP country. That’s true. It’s all but assured that Union will easily back Trump, Tillis, and the Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Forest. The question is just how big that Republican edge will be when all the votes are counted. Trump visited Gaston County, on the west side of Charlotte, last week in an effort to juice turnout in a reliably Republican area,But even if Republicans sweep the county this year, they’ll have to adapt if they want to keep winning big, says Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist in the state who was a close aide to Helms for years.“Union County when Jesse was in the Senate was a very rural county,” Wrenn says. “Now it’s got a big chunk of suburban in it. If the long-term trends continue, the Republicans are going to have to find a way to compete in the suburbs. It can be done, but you just have to change your whole way of thinking.”In other words, if the GOP wants to win in North Carolina, and around the country, it’s going to have to keep countrypolitan counties in its column by changing along with them.
2 d
theatlantic.com