Politics Counts: Where Population Growth Matters in November

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There is a tendency in politics to think of communities as static entities – or at least very slow to change. For some Pittsburgh, Pa., is still a smokestack-laden union town and Orange County, Calif., is still rock-ribbed Republican.

But four years can be a long time in some places, particularly where the population is rapidly growing and changing. In some big battleground states, those places could have a big impact in November.

Consider North Carolina, where the Democrats just wrapped up their 2012 convention. In 2008 candidate Barack Obama won the state by a slim 14,000 votes. Since 2008, the state has added more than 370,000 people to its voting-age population. Between April 2010 and July 2011 Mecklenburg County, home of Charlotte, added more than 46,000 adults all by itself, according to Census figures.

And North Carolina is not alone. Neighboring Virginia has added more than 280,000 new voting-age citizens. Colorado, about 160,000. And Florida, which has been so crucial in recent presidential campaigns, has added more than 700,000.

Understanding the meaning of those increases is not easy. New populations by definition can fundamentally change a place. But comparing the growth by county in those four states since 2008 to recent elections results reveals some noteworthy trends. In some states President Obama seems to have gained an edge in the growth and in others the increase seems to have helped Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s prospects.

North Carolina. There are a lot of factors working against Mr. Obama and his team’s hopes of recapturing the Tar Heel state, including its unemployment rate, which sits above the national average. But you can add to that list of challenges the state’s growth patterns.

If you break North Carolina’s counties into three categories – Core Democratic Counties that voted Democratic in 2004 and 2008, Obama Pickup Counties that went with the president four years ago and Core Republican Counties that voted Republican in 2004 and 2008 – the Republican communities have seen the biggest boost, an additional 158,000 potential voters.

That doesn’t mean that all those voters are necessarily Republicans, but remember those counties voted with the GOP in 2008 in a year where Barack Obama far outperformed Democratic vote totals from the 2004 presidential race. The state’s biggest counties, Mecklenburg and Wake, went for Mr. Obama in 2008 and the dark green on the map shows they have seen big growth, but there are also a lot of smaller light green counties that lean Republican. Many of those counties are categorized as socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters in the Patchwork Nation breakdown of community demographics.

Add in Mr. Obama’s slim margin of victory in 2008 and North Carolina looks like a very hard target for him in 2012. For the rest of this Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's website.