The GOP risks demographic doom in 2016 — and North Carolina is Exhibit A


ASHEVILLE, N.C. — "The times, they are a-changin'."

The refrain of the Bob Dylan hippie anthem dates back to 1964, but the concept still holds true in this liberal Southern enclave — especially when it comes to taking a 30,000-foot view of the shifting political situation in the Tar Heel State.

North Carolina is known for producing tobacco, Christmas trees — and, as of late, HB2, the bill that bars people from using public restrooms that don't align with their birth-assigned gender.

Once blood-red, North Carolina is now increasingly a battleground when it comes to presidential politics. And thanks to a new generation of left-leaning voters, it could be on track to turn even bluer — to the chagrin of the Republican Party.

The latest RealClearPolitics averages have Democrat Hillary Clinton in a statistical dead heat with Republican Donald Trump in the state. President Barack Obama accepted his party's nomination for re-election in this state four years ago, only to lose North Carolina narrowly to GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the fall.

Monday, Trump expounded on his hope and change sales pitch at a well-attended (though typically turbulent) rally in a U.S. Cellular Center appearance sandwiched between tour stops by Weird Al Yankovic and Widespread Panic.

To be fair, Asheville is representative of North Carolina about as much as a visit to Austin lets someone say they know what it's really like to be deep in the heart of Texas.

Asheville, a proud Bible Belt bastion of progressivism, might have seemed an odd milieu for Trump's "Make America Great Again" spiel. Protesters thronged the streets and faced off with flag-waving Trump backers who cast aspersions on their political views and their personal hygiene.

Still, Asheville boasts the only major event venue for miles. The liberal enclave — where Bernie Sanders got more primary votes than all the GOP candidates put together — is a manageable drive from surrounding Republican-loyal outposts.

Even the most casual encounter on the streets of Asheville — the same place where a tow truck driver left a driver stranded after spotting a Bernie Sanders sign on her car — hints at the depth of North Carolina's political divides.

On Tuesday, pausing on the seat of his walker near his downtown apartment, Charles Pickens, 76, vowed to vote for Clinton in November and said he'd see a President Donald Trump as "the anti-Christ."

He had polite morning tidings for a bearded, tattooed acquaintance who would only give his name as Chris.

From beneath a "Duck Dynasty" cap, Chris (who said felony convictions for manslaughter and drugs ended his right to vote decades ago) said the state was a mess and railed against the idea of letting "men and women go to the same damn bathroom."

It's remarks like that which elicit exasperated eye rolls from left-leaning Asheville millennials like Caitie Murie, 25, and Jonathan Pegues, 28.

"I feel like at this point we're waiting for generational takeover to take effect," Pegues said as he and Murie perched in the window of a local bar.

"There's a reason why people are supporting LGBT rights: We're getting smarter. We're evolving. We're becoming better," Pegues said. "And then as soon as all the old people die off who hate gay people, that hate, like, everything that is awful to [the] younger generation, [it's] going to be better. It's just we have to be patient."

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Murie gave her take: That while "things around here have been moving in the right direction," life wouldn't really improve until the defeat of what she called a prevailing "idiocracy" beyond Asheville's borders.

Riffing on Trump's promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, Murie — who said she steered clear of his visit for fear of getting into a brawl — snarked of Asheville's conservative exurbs: "I want to build a wall around them."

While change may not be coming quite as fast as super left-wing North Carolinians might like, J. Michael Bitzer, provost and professor of political science at Catawba University, said demographic shifts do telegraph good news for Democrats here.

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Millennials are the state's fastest-growing group, Bitzer said in an interview. Most are joining the ranks of the North Carolina electorate as independents. But among partisans, by a margin of 36% to 24%, more are registering as Democrats than as Republicans.

Since national trends show millennials tend to lean left, the fact that they're the Tar Heel State's fastest-growing voter group "really means that there's going to be a fundamental shakeup in North Carolina," Bitzer said.

Consider: Registered Republicans account for about 30% of North Carolina's voters. That number drops to 24% among millennials, Bitzer said.

"That's a huge warning sign," he said. "If I were a Republican strategist, I'd be looking at that and going, 'What's the future of my party?'"

Should Trump fail to secure North Carolina's 15 electoral votes, his hopes of victory in November are all but nil. Even as he lost nationwide by about four percentage points, Romney defeated Obama here by two percentage points in 2012 — four years after Obama eked out a Tar Heel win over John McCain.

Asheville's changing landscape, to an extent, is a metaphor for its social and political evolution.

The old Woolworth building still has a lunch counter — but the rest of the floor space showcases the handicrafts of local artisans. The elevator in a sprawling department store-turned-hotel announces that second-floor guests can alight on the "menswear" level. The occupants of million-dollar condos can tickle their palates with organic cheeses and duck sausage.

And as the Citizen-Times noted ahead of Trump's arrival,

Among 22 mountain counties, Buncombe County, which contains Asheville, is a blue island in a sea of red. A majority of Buncombe voters have picked Democrats in statewide federal elections since 2008, while the rest of [western North Carolina's] counties have gone Republican, with only two exceptions.

Hudson Benson, meanwhile, sought out roommates when he decided to move from Raleigh to Asheville, where he'll be going to school for massage therapy.

"North Carolina's definitely undergoing a shift, which I feel a lot of places are, as a younger generation comes into their own and starts becoming more aware of what's going on in the world," Benson, 25, said as he relaxed outside a neighborhood cafe with a laptop and a Carl Jung tome.

"There's more liberal-minded people, but I also feel like there's people who are really tired of both sides, simply just having the two candidate choices," he said. "[It's] like, you choose the puppet on the right or the puppet on the left."

Despite those frustrations, Benson said he's confident change is coming to the state — sometime.

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"You may not see it in this election, but I feel like it's pushing more and more in that direction. Especially with the people I grew up with... Yeah, there are still some of those diehard Republicans, but again, they're just kind of repeating what their parents taught them," he said.

"The ones who have gone out [to] get an education [or] see the world, they usually have a different opinion."

For all the liberal leanings of young people in a super liberal place like Asheville, Clinton probably shouldn't consider their support a given.

"We're all over it," a blasé Murie said when asked about her November voting plans as a registered Democrat. "If you're talking to young people, like, no one even gives a f*ck anymore."

And Benson?

He considers himself an anarchist.

Emily Cahn contributed reporting from New York.