- North Carolina is among the most politically competitive states in the country
- Since 2004, the urban/rural political divide has continued to grow
- Racial polarization continues to play a large part in voters’ choices
Thanks to volunteer CJ Newell for assisting with data analysis for this piece!
In which direction is North Carolina’s politics headed, overall?
It’s a difficult, but provocative, question, which is partially why there are so many attempts to answer it. Here at Carolina Forward, we possess no crystal ball that can tell the future. But we are data enthusiasts, and electoral data abounds that provides interesting clues about the direction North Carolina’s voters are moving in. We have previously looked at the basic political geography of North Carolina and the ongoing shift in its urban areas. With the 2024 general election coming up, we decided to look back and consider how county-level voting patterns have shifted in North Carolina as a whole during the last 20 years, to find further clues.
We came away with some fascinating conclusions. North Carolina is in the midst of an obvious political realignment. The urban/rural divide is growing, with major implications for both Republican and Democratic fortunes in the state.
In this analysis, we examined Presidential election returns in all 100 of North Carolina’s counties since 2004 by comparing the county-level election margins from that year to 2020. (For example: Alleghany county had a 19.9 point margin between the Republican and Democratic candidates in 2004, but a 50 point margin in 2020. The county thus swung 30.1 points towards Republicans.) We chose to analyze Presidential elections because they occur very reliably every four years (so far, at least), and they are among the highest-information elections voters participate in. That is, unlike elections for, say, the legislature or State Auditor, voters generally have a very clear idea of who the Presidential candidates are, and what political parties they represent. This can give us a strong indication of voters’ general partisan leanings.
Overall, 60 counties have grown more Republican, while 40 have grown more Democratic since the 2004 Presidential election. Many of these shifts are relatively minor – 46 counties only swung one way or another by single digits in that time, and 22 of them by 5 points or less. But 54 counties (a majority) have shifted by double digits. In fact, 14 counties shifted by more than 20% (including our friends in Alleghany). We’ll return to those later on.
These shifts are not all created equal. After all, except for the U.S. Senate and Electoral College, land acreage generally does not vote. People do, and North Carolina’s counties are highly unevenly populated. It is reasonable to assume that counties with voters who have exhibited major recent shifts in vote preference are likely to continue on a similar trajectory. This means that it matters quite a bit which counties are moving – and by how much.
Where growth is happening
Among the 20 largest counties in the state, as measured in the latest U.S. Census, Democrats and Republicans each win 10 of them; yet 17 of them are growing more Democratic. This means that of the 10 largest counties voting Republican today, Republican margins there are shrinking in 7 of them – quite rapidly, in some (see the 25-point collapse in Cabarrus, 16-point movement in Union, and 14 points in Alamance).
There are no large, Democratic counties that are trending more Republican. Only 3 of the largest 20 counties overall are becoming more Republican, and these only barely, in safely red counties.
There is slightly better news for Republicans if we look at the fastest-growing counties in the state. Of the 20 fastest-growing counties in North Carolina (again, as measured by percentage population growth between 2010 and 2020 in the Census), Republicans won 12 of them in the 2020 Presidential election. Yet looking at the margin shifts since 2004, the news is similar: most of those are trending towards Democrats. Only 4 of the fastest-growing counties are trending more Republican, and they are reasonably small counties population-wise.
The “fastest-growing” metric may also be somewhat misleading, since it measures numbers in percentage terms. Currituck county may be growing quickly, but that is partly due to the nature of small numbers (its total population is still only about 30,000). Meanwhile, Wake county’s growth of 25% meant almost a quarter of a million new residents, which has an obviously larger electoral impact.
There are 8 counties that swung towards Democrats by 20 points or more since 2004. All of them are either among the biggest, or biggest and fastest-growing, counties in the state: Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Cabarrus, Forsyth, Guilford, Buncombe and Cumberland. These are all large, diverse, economically prosperous counties.
By comparison, there are 6 counties that swung towards Republicans by 20 points or more: Cherokee, Ashe, Graham, Columbus, Yancey and Alleghany. They are mostly small, all rural, and overwhelmingly white: 5 have more than 85% white voters (see below). The biggest is Columbus, which was 51st in size at 50,623 residents in 2020.
Types of voters
We are able to make certain inferences about the types of voters who are a part of the ongoing realignment in North Carolina’s politics. Broadly, what we see is that rural counties are trending heavily Republican, driven mostly by rural whites. Rural non-whites are a notable exception to this trend. More diverse urban counties are moving just as rapidly in the opposite direction.
There are 35 counties where Republicans have improved their margins by double digits since 2004. Of these, only one – Lincoln county – is non-rural, as defined by the NC Rural Center. 23 of these counties have declined in population since 2010 (again, per Census data), and only 2 – Pender and Currituck – are growing reasonably quickly (15% and 19%, respectively).
Meanwhile, there are 19 counties where Democrats have improved their margins by double digits since 2004. Of these, only 4 are considered rural (Nash, Watauga, Wayne and Chatham). Only 2 have declined in population since 2010, and the other 17 are all growing very quickly.
There are 25 counties in North Carolina where white voters constitute 85% or more of all registrations. 24 of these 25 counties are rural (Henderson county being the lone exception). Democrats won only 1 of those 25 in 2020: Watauga county, which of course is home to Appalachian State. In 21 of these counties, Republican margins are growing at the expense of Democrats; in 18 of of them, they have grown by double digits since 2004.
There are 16 counties where non-white voters (most of them Black, but also Hispanic and, in Robeson, American Indian) constitute at least half or more of all registered voters. 14 of these 16 are rural – the exceptions being Durham and Cumberland. Democrats won 13 of these 16 counties in 2020, and they are improving their margins in 10 of them. Republicans are (famously) improving markedly in Robeson county, and also in Anson and Scotland counties – though these latter two counties are relatively small (ranking 76 and 68 in terms of size, respectively).
What it all means
As we set out in the beginning of this piece, we have no crystal ball. Political predictions, as they say, are the graveyard of reputations. Nevertheless, the general trends are clear: Democrats are rapidly consolidating voters in suburban and metro areas, while losing support in predominantly rural, white counties. Republicans, meanwhile, are just as rapidly consolidating support in rural, much less diverse counties, but shedding voters in urban and suburban areas.
These two opposing forces largely cancel each other out – but of course, not quite. There is (or will be) a “winner” on the margin. There are an awful lot of rural counties in North Carolina, and many Republicans believe that strong support there will insulate them from their losses in urban areas. Many Democrats, meanwhile, look at growth trends of suburban and metro counties, versus rural ones, and consider them richer sources of voters to pick up. It is, perhaps, a form of partisan Rorschach test which you would prefer. At least one thing is clear: the rural/urban divide is not getting better, at least anytime soon. If anything, it will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.