- NC’s biggest counties are shifting towards Democrats at a rapid pace
- Those same counties are soaking up nearly all of the state’s growth
- Meanwhile, most other counties in the state are losing population
A central fact about North Carolina’s politics is that electoral strength is slowly shifting to more urban/suburban counties and away from rural ones.
As we covered in The Great Carolina Slowdown, most of North Carolina’s population growth has accrued to its urban counties and suburban areas for over twenty years – and that trend is accelerating. Between 2010 and 2020, the majority of North Carolina’s 100 counties actually lost population, while the state overall gained over 900,000 new residents. Just 4 counties – Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham and Guilford – attracted over half of all that growth.
Another central fact moving North Carolina’s politics is that those same counties in our state are all trending Democratic at a rapid pace. This is part of a broader, observable realignment of American politics among moderate voters that is underway all across the United States.
Today, building on top of our recent post on North Carolina’s political geography, we offer a look at what exactly this realignment looks like in our state’s booming metro areas. We examine Presidential election results from 2012, 2016 and 2020 cycles, plus the 2022 U.S. Senate race for comparison.
All graphs courtesy of @UniteCarolina, to whom we are very grateful.
Wake County has been the fastest-growing area in North Carolina for close to two decades, as a booming local economy in industries like technology, life sciences, higher education and more has drawn workers and new residents from all over the state and the nation. That growth has had profound political impacts: in the space of just about 15 years, the county went from narrowly choosing George W. Bush to supporting President Joe Biden by a whopping 26 points. Wake county’s large delegation at the General Assembly has been winnowed to just 1 remaining Republican representative, who survives due to a creatively gerrymandered district.
It’s been a very long time since Mecklenburg county was a particularly Republican county, though it did produce GOP Senator Thom Tillis, who got his start up in Cornelius. Since then, however, Charlotte’s growth has made the county even more blue. President Biden in 2020 almost doubled Obama’s total votes in the 2012 election, and Cheri Beasley improved on Obama’s performance even in a midterm year, with famously middling Democratic voter turnout. Mecklenburg has turned so Democratic that there is no longer any “safe” Republican seat that even the most dedicated for gerrymander drawer can carve – though they will try.
The Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point area has steadily moved leftward, increasing the Democratic Presidential margin by about 73% between 2012 and 2020. Not only have all three urban downtowns of the Triad become bluer, but they’ve radiated out as well, turning eastern Guilford blue and steadily narrowing Republican margins in both eastern and western Forsyth. This trend will continue.
New Hanover county is a relatively recent, and highly meaningful, flip for the Democrats. After the county went for President Biden in 2020, many wondered if that was a one-time fluke fueled by the broad rejection of the MAGA agenda. That turns out not to have been the case, as New Hanover also went – albeit narrowly – for Cheri Beasley in 2022. Republican margins in the southern end of the county (like Carolina Beach) have steadily narrowed, and the county is now approaching “blue county” status.
Cumberland county, with its highly diverse population thanks in part to military newcomers from Fort Liberty (formerly known as Bragg), has been a reliably Democratic county for some time. Cumberland does not show the same scale of shift as other large counties, however.
Famously liberal Buncombe has seen a hard shift towards Democrats in the last ten years, driven by strong growth from Asheville out into the county. President Biden more than doubled the vote performance from Obama in 2012, and Cheri Beasley saw only moderate slippage from his total in the 2022 midterm. New growth in essentially every direction outside of Asheville has flipped large parts of the county blue, with little sign of slowing.
Why, and what comes next
The biggest source of North Carolina’s growth over the last decade – about 70% – has been “net migration,” according to Carolina Demography. This refers to folks from out of state moving to North Carolina. Contrary to the stereotype of liberal New Yorkers and Californians moving for political reasons, the top states from which people moved to North Carolina were Florida, New York, Virginia, South Carolina and California, in that order.
As more and more of North Carolina’s growth accrues to its urban counties, and those counties trend faster towards Democrats, the state overall will grow ever more competitive. Of course, growing Republican margins in predominantly white rural counties is a countervailing force. But virtually all of those rural counties are shrinking, as people vote with their feet and move to bluer, more economically vibrant counties, meaning that these two forces are not equal to one another. One need only consider Donald Trump’s razor-thin 2020 win by just 74,000 votes, or about 1.3%, to see those results.
The 2024 election will be a major turning point in North Carolina politics. The presumptive Trump/Mark Robinson GOP ticket, as MAGA as MAGA can be, will offer a dark vision of radical right-wing extremism to an electorate that hews more towards good schools and social moderation. It will likely be one of the most consequential elections in recent state history.