- “Political geography” refers to how the geographic distribution of voters influences political outcomes
- North Carolina’s political geography is about a third rural, but increasingly clustered in metro areas
- Rural areas are hurting badly, in part due to state lawmaker negligence
It has become cliché to point out that North Carolina is a fast growing state. North Carolina was the 9th fastest-growing state in 2022 (growing 1.3% in population). Though the state’s growth slowed between 2010-2020 compared to the decade prior, the overall population still grew by over 900,000 new residents. A large majority of those newcomers are flocking to North Carolina’s cities, which are burgeoning with growth. Consider: Charlotte alone is estimated to add 84 new residents every single day, compared with 20 each day to Durham. Over time, growth patterns like these are radically changing North Carolina’s “political geography.”
“Political geography” is a term that refers, in this case, to how settlement patterns influence political outcomes. As a relatively large state, North Carolina has a very different political geography than a small state like Rhode Island, a colossal one like Texas, or a large but scantly populated one like Alaska. To understand North Carolina’s political landscape, you must understand its political geography – as well as how it is changing.
Most voters in North Carolina live in just a small number of counties. While our state contains 100 counties, 12 of them contain fully half of all the voters. A third of all voters are in just 5 counties (highlighted in blue).
The vast majority of North Carolina's landmass is very low-density, meaning fewer than 100 people per precinct. About a third of the state's population is classified as "rural," while another third is classified as urban, and the others are somewhere in between. There is, of course, considerable haziness on the margins of these definitions, as places that were once rural are now more exurban or even suburban. These bleeding edges of North Carolina's urban cores contain many of the fastest-transitioning areas of the state.
It is hardly a secret that rural counties lean Republican, while urban counties lean Democratic. This general rule holds less true for counties with heavy concentrations of Black voters, but elsewhere is plain to see. Yet how this disparity affects election outcomes often isn't fully appreciated. While many rural counties lean heavily Republican, there are so few people in many of those counties that the actual number of marginal (or surplus) votes they provide is small. By contrast, urban counties that lean heavily Democratic supply huge numbers of marginal votes, because there are simply many more voters there.
Consider the following visualization. Here, "marginal votes" are the total number of votes a given county yielded for the overall winner, less the number that went to their opponent. (For example, if 4 voters in County X voted for Trump, but 6 voted for Biden, the result would be 2 marginal votes for Biden.)
As you can see, urban counties provide overwhelming numbers of marginal votes for Democratic candidates. Rural Graham county went for Trump by 60 points in the 2020 election, but only yielded 2,799 votes for him, while more urban Buncombe county provided 33,929 votes for Biden. Buncombe county alone, in fact, contains so many more voters that it nearly offsets all 8 counties to its west in electoral strength. Mecklenburg is so Democratic that it offsets Republican margins in every county surrounding it by a healthy margin, with tens of thousands more votes to spare.
Long-term rural decline
While urban and suburban North Carolina may be bursting at the seams, many rural parts of our state are slowly dying.
As shown in The Great Carolina Slowdown, the last decade in particular has hit rural areas hard. In short, a small number of counties (and Wake and Mecklenburg above all) are capturing nearly all of the new population growth, while most counties in our state are either stagnant or shrinking. This fact is readily apparent to anyone who spends time in much of the state, but it is borne out in bright contrast in data:
Along with a shrinking population, many rural counties are experiencing significant economic hardship. Outside of the six fastest-growing counties in North Carolina, the median county's economy grew at an annualized rate of only 1.5% between 2011 and 2020. According to the NC Rural Center, rural counties have lost thousands of small businesses (those with fewer than 10 employees) in this time period, as both customers and economic activity have moved away. There has also been nearly $2 billion less loaned to small businesses there - a loss of two-thirds of total investment capital, meaning that it's even harder for those businesses left to grow.
There are national, even global, trends behind some of this, as well as long-running technological and economic shifts that no group of policymakers anywhere truly has control over. But for their own part, North Carolina's state lawmakers have contributed to this problem - not helped it:
- By opposing Medicaid expansion for over a decade, North Carolina's lawmakers have forced 11 rural hospitals to close. North Carolina is now #3 nationally for rural hospital closures, and despite millions of residents being in collections for medical debt, lawmakers have done nothing.
- Lawmakers have carefully protected a 2011 ban on municipal broadband networks sponsored by telecom lobbyists, leaving wide swaths of the state at the mercy of spotty, unreliable and expensive broadband providers.
- Long-running Republican opposition to adequately funding public schools, even after court orders to do so, has left rural schoolchildren in under-resourced schools with poorly paid teachers and staff, while urban counties can afford to supplement their schools.
These are fixable problems, but only with the political will to do something about them.