ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Hillary Clinton “owes the state of North Carolina a very big apology,” Donald Trump thundered, condemning the loss of manufacturing jobs due to free-trade deals supported by the Democratic presidential nominee.
The attack line drew no more than polite applause at his event last week in Charlotte.
In the state that may be the most pivotal to Trump’s White House bid, the audience for the Republican’s chief economic pitch is shrinking by the day. Textile and furniture manufacturing no longer dominates the state’s economy as it did a generation ago. Banking, technology and others industries have driven North Carolina’s economic output to grow faster than any state in the past three years.
Voters are flowing into the state at a firehose rate — young, educated and many to take high-paying jobs when they arrive. They’re coming from everywhere and quickly diluting North Carolina’s conservative political underpinnings.
“Clinton is winning,” said North Carolina Republican pollster Michael Luethy. “Particularly because folks who have moved to the state in the last five years are very different voters. They’re persuaded by a different issue set than those have been here a while.”
Meet Katie Snyder of Asheville.
She moved to the hip mountain oasis two years ago as a new college graduate to take an engineering job waiting for her at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a global laboratory equipment maker that has a freezer division in Asheville.
The Ohio native said she tends to support Republicans, but “I don’t know what I’m going to do in November.” She doesn’t fully trust Clinton, and the 2010 health care overhaul enacted under Democratic President Barack Obama has been hard on some of her peers. But she adds: “I don’t know if I can see myself voting for Trump.”
On the road to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, the inability of Trump’s message on trade to win over voters such as Snyder in North Carolina is a major problem for the Republican nominee. A win here and in neighboring Virginia would open a path for Clinton reach 270 even if Trump captures the traditional powerhouse battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida.
“I don’t see a path without North Carolina,” said Chris Jankowski, a Republican campaign strategist based in Virginia whose work includes North Carolina candidates.
In 2008, Obama was the first Democrat to win North Carolina since 1976. While Republican Mitt Romney won the state four years later, political professionals such as Luethy believe the more than 200,000 people that have moved to North Carolina since the 2012 election increase the challenge for Trump.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found Clinton up 9 points in North Carolina in early August. But it also showed that she’s substantially outpacing Trump in the state’s economic boom regions. She had more than 50 percent support in the Charlotte area and led Trump by more than 2-to-1 in the Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
Trump’s attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement may echo in rural North Carolina, but urban centers have done well in the decades since NAFTA was enacted.
The Charlotte area has nearly doubled in size over the past 25 years, due in part to its transition to a transportation and financial hub. It is home to Bank of America Corp., the nation’s second largest bank by assets. The Raleigh-Durham area has doubled in size in the past 15 years, exploding alongside the university region’s medical and technology businesses.
Even the Asheville area, small by comparison, has grown has grown by 45 percent since 1990 — and faster since 2000. The town now has a population of roughly 500,000, many like Snyder who benefit from free trade. Thermo Fisher Scientific, her employer, has roughly 50,000 employees in 50 countries.
Clinton’s statewide advantage among such younger and college educated voters is also helping tighten the race in what were once the more conservative regions that surrounded Asheville in the state’s west and Fayetteville in the east.
Gia Haynes moved from Atlanta after graduating from college in May to Fayetteville with the hope of landing a job as a scientist for one of the major food processors in the region, such as Smithfield Foods Inc. For her, paying off her $25,000 student loan is more pressing than global trade.
“Trump’s down side is he doesn’t empathize with people or understand what they are going through,” she said.
Jankowski, who has been a leading Virginia legislative race tactician for more than 20 years, said a similar economic transition is helping put Virginia out of Trump’s reach. Northern Virginia has evolved in the past generation from a bedroom community for federal employees into a technology hub, especially for military and aerospace design.
Obama twice carried Virginia, which hadn’t gone with a Democratic nominee for the 11 consecutive previous presidential elections. Apparently confident in her leads in public and private polls alike, Clinton suspended advertising in the state early this month.
“In North Carolina, you’re seeing a smaller version of what’s happening in Virginia,” Jankowski said.
Cautiously optimistic, the Clinton campaign’s battleground data analyst Michael Halle said new voters give her an advantage in North Carolina, though not to the same degree as in Virginia. But, he added: “North Carolina is moving in that direction, faster than Virginia, in fact.”