Attention, Thom Tillis: North Carolina’s “traditional” population is growing, too.

North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis told the Carolina Business Review that the "traditional population of North Carolina and the United States is more or less stable. It's not growing." He was drawing a contrast to the black and Latino populations, which are growing.  While it's pretty clearly a political mistake to appear to refer to white voters as a state's "traditional population", Tillis is also wrong on the numbers.

Thom Tillis speaks to supporters at a election night rally in Charlotte, N.C., last May.  (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Here's the commentary, by way of the liberal website Talking Points Memo, which reported the story earlier on Tuesday.

And, here's Tillis' full quote: "The traditional population of North Carolina and the United States is more or less stable. It's not growing. The African American population is roughly growing but the Hispanic population and the other immigrant populations are growing in significant numbers. We've got to resonate with those future voters."

Tillis' communications director explained the comment to TPM: "'Traditional' North Carolinians refers to North Carolinians who have been here for a few generations. A lot of the state's recent population growth is from people who move from other states to live, work, and settle down in North Carolina. Thom Tillis, for example."

Given Tillis' actual words, that explanation doesn't make much sense. If "traditional" means "people who have been in North Carolina a long time," of course that population isn't growing. Without readily available time machines, it's hard to create new long-term residents of a state.

It seems more likely that Tillis misspoke in a cumbersome way. But he's wrong on the data, too, as it pertains to North Carolina.

"Traditional" is a vague term with an unclear time frame. So here's how the state's population has looked in each Census since 1790.


That's the white, black and Hispanic percentage of state residents. (Hispanic is not mutually exclusive with white and black, we'll note.) The percentage of the state's population that is black has declined, perhaps thanks to a certain change in American law in the mid-1800s. Or, if the "tradition" is the population of the state since Tillis was born -- in 1960 -- that dynamic has been defined by a declining percentage of whites versus an increase among the state's Latinos.

But that doesn't mean the white population isn't growing. It just isn't growing as fast as the Latino population. Here are the raw numbers for the state's black and white populations over time.


In 1940, the white population of North Carolina was about 2.5 million, the black population was just shy of a million. In 2010, the black population passed two million for the first time -- but the white population neared 6.5 million.

Tillis was reflecting a concern within certain parts of the Republican Party -- that the uptick in the green line in that first graph, the increase in Hispanic voters, threatens the party's future prospects nationally. That point, however, got buried.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.



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