If you think North Carolina is a typical Southern state, you don't know us. Bad soil and shallow rivers denied us the slave-based plantations that powered South Carolina and Virginia to their 19th-century peaks. So North Carolina remained poor, with a population of unpredictable yeoman farmers.
Slaves or not, North Carolinians fought for the Confederacy, and they took so many casualties that monuments across the state recall "Our Confederate Dead." Still, as the war wound down, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman called off his army of locusts that had swarmed through Georgia and South Carolina. Sherman's orders noted that "the state of North Carolina was one of the last states that passed the ordinance of secession," adding that "it should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies of our government."
Sherman wasn't sure what to think of North Carolina, either.
A political environment that was friendly to business (and hostile to unions), along with a workforce spread across hundreds of small towns, made post-Civil War North Carolina attractive to labor-intensive industries such as textiles, apparel, furniture, and cigarette production. By 1900, there were nearly 200 large textile mills operating in the state, attracting workers - called "lint heads," for the cotton fragments in their hair - from the surrounding countryside. Between 1880 and 1920, the state's population doubled.
The state legislature and a succession of pro-business governors from both parties were keener than those in other states to invest in roads and higher education. The twin giants of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State occupy two corners of the state's "Research Triangle," with the third corner held down by the medical and research powerhouse Duke. The Triangle has among the highest concentrations of advanced degrees in the nation.
Today, the state's largest employment sectors are manufacturing and health care, concentrated around the Triangle as well as the "Triad" (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point); and finance, concentrated in Charlotte.
Hard to know
Politically, North Carolina is still hard to know. The population has doubled again since 1980. In several of the largest counties, half the residents were born out of state. In fact, nearly 10 percent of the state's population wasn't born in the United States.
Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, the only Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter. But the race was decided by only 15,000 votes, and the gubernatorial race, won by Democrat Beverly Perdue, was the closest in the nation. Turnout was more than 65 percent, nearly eight percentage points above the state's average.
In May, North Carolina showed its unpredictability again. Amendment One, a state constitutional measure banning same-sex marriage, passed by an overwhelming margin, 61 percent to 39 percent. The day after the vote, President Obama announced his own support for same-sex marriage. A number of conservative African American pastors in the state condemned the president for that, and a number of onetime supporters repudiated him. But many new residents of the state supported the move.
The Democratic National Convention, whose climax will take place at Bank of America Stadium, is bringing more strange and unpredictable politics to North Carolina. Democrats refuse to refer to the stadium by name, referring to it as "the venue." Some union supporters are boycotting the convention entirely, and it is not clear that the Democrats will be able to fill the stadium without recruiting "volunteers."
On the other hand, most polls still show President Obama clinging to a narrow lead in the state. This is surprising given that possible cuts in military funding are a particular threat to North Carolina, which is home to three large military bases. Such cuts could further increase our 9.5 percent unemployment rate, already among the highest in the nation.
So, as is often the case with North Carolina's politics, the outcome will remain hard to predict. In spite of the difficulties facing the state, "it should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies" of the incumbent.
Michael Munger is a professor of political science, economics, and public policy at Duke University. He was the Libertarian candidate for North Carolina governor in 2008.