North Carolina is an emblem of the New South. In recent decades, significant population growth has dramatically altered the state's demographics. Young professionals, non-native Southerners, Latinos, and other minorities have migrated to the state due to the booming housing market, an enviable higher education system, and the economic draw of Charlotte and the Research Triangle. All these changes have had a profound effect on the state's politics and culture, turning a once reliably red state into a closely-fought swing state.
In general there are eight regions of the state. The Outer Banks, the Southeast, the Northeast, the Sandhills, and the Research Triangle make up Eastern North Carolina, while Charlotte, the Piedmont Triad, and the Mountains make up Western North Carolina. The east and west each have about half of the state's population.
Since the days of the Solid South, east and west have been the primary divide in North Carolina politics, with Democrats dominating in the east and Republicans having a base in the west. However, this disparity is diminishing due to partisan realignment and demographic change. Historically, the east-west divide stretched back generations: While the east was influenced by plantation agriculture and the related legacy of slavery, the soil further west was more suited to small farms and tobacco, resulting in a rural population that was far whiter, especially in Appalachia.
I have calculated election results for every presidential race from 1960 to 2012, as well as all statewide races for the last 20 years. Presidential election results from 1980, 1968, and 1960 perfectly reflected the east-west divide, with Republicans winning all three regions in the west and losing all five in the east. In 2012, Obama won the combined regions of Eastern North Carolina by nearly 6 percent, while Romney carried the west by 9 points.
Downballot elections demonstrate an even starker contrast. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory barely carried the east by less than one point during his landslide 2012 win. In the last 20 years there were 80 non-presidential statewide partisan elections, of which Republicans won 28 and Democrats 52. However, only five of them saw Republicans carry the combined east, while just 18 resulted in Democrats winning the west.
Down below you will find more details about each of these regions and their politics, and why population changes are moving North Carolina to the left.
In modern times, Democrats now do best in the fast-growing Triangle. Dems also do well in the more rural Sandhills and northeast area, thanks to large minority populations rather than because of support from white Dixiecrats. Once strongly Democratic, the Southeast and Outer Banks are becoming increasingly more Republican as those conservative whites continue to switch their allegiances as they have done across the South.
Population growth among urban and minority voters in Charlotte has pushed that once solidly Republican area towards Democrats, although the suburbs are still dark red. The Piedmont Triad has been more stagnant in terms of growth, but it features that same urban-rural divide. Finally, the Mountains have long been one of the most Republican regions in the state as well as being the whitest, but unlike nearly anywhere else in small-town Appalachia, Asheville and its neighboring counties are a sizable island of blue in a sea of red.
Let's take a look at each region individually.
The Charlotte metropolitan area is the biggest in the state, with the city itself among the top 20 most populous municipalities in the country. Home to one of the largest financial industry sectors outside of New York, the region and its strong housing market have attracted residents from across the country, particularly minorities such as Latinos, as well as educated young professionals. This rapid pace of population growth—a doubling of residents over the past 25 years—has turned what was once the bulwark of Republican strength in the state into a heavily Democratic urban core.
But outside of Charlotte and the rest of Mecklenburg County, the suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities remain overwhelmingly Republican. Southeast of Charlotte, wealthy, exurban Union County provides Republicans statewide with their largest margin of votes of any county, while Cabarrus County to the north and even Gaston County to the west have been pulled further into Charlotte's orbit by suburban sprawl. As Charlotte grows, white flight and geographic segregation by race and class will likely make these collar counties even more essential to Republican victories statewide.
Aside from these four core counties, the more rural and small town communities such as Hickory, Statesville, and Salisbury have a more distinct identity. Beyond their urban centers, these places are starkly Republican and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
While the broader metropolitan area is only modestly red, there is an enormous divide between the core and periphery. Mecklenburg County voted for Obama by 22 points while the rest of the region went for Romney by 27. Much of this is driven by the stark contrast in demographics. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are majority minority, while the rest of the region is heavily white.
The Mountains of Western North Carolina are fairly synonymous with Appalachia. Near-monolithically white and relatively rural, the region has long been one of the most Republican parts of North Carolina and is the only one where the party has a plurality among registered voters. More similar to East Tennessee than Eastern North Carolina, in parts of the Mountains the relative hostility to the Democratic Party stretches back to the Civil War era.
Asheville is the largest city in the region and home to a burgeoning artistic community, which has given it a sharp demographic contrast with the rest of the region. Relatively higher levels of education and a larger proportion of non-native North Carolinians resulted in Buncombe County being one of just a few to vote against the same-sex marriage ban in May of 2012. Unlike other strongly progressive Appalachian towns, Asheville's politics aren't driven by a large state university since UNC-Asheville only has a few thousand students.
Democrats could once compete for many rural white voters in the counties west of Asheville. While ticket-splitting is declining, occasionally candidates such as former Rep. Heath Shuler perform quite well with these conservative whites. More frequently however, those rural counties are giving Republicans clear margins as the remaining conservative Democrats change their voting habits. Nonetheless, rural white voters here are still considerably more Democratic than those in any other part of the state, but because there are few minority voters, Republicans win overall.
Outside of Boone (the home of Appalachian State University) and Asheville, Republicans maintain an advantage everywhere else except for pockets of blue in the urban cores of Morganton, Lenoir, and a few even smaller towns. In the north of Appalachian North Carolina, Avery and Mitchell counties are the most Republican counties in the entire state at all levels. They last voted Democratic for president in the disputed election of 1876 and went for Romney by around 50 points.
This region lacks a longstanding regional name, but is perhaps the most stereotypical example of Eastern North Carolina: rural, poor, undereducated, and strongly influenced by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Major towns include the heavily-non-white communities of Wilson, Rocky Mount, and Goldsboro, while further east there's the original state capital of New Bern and Greenville, home to the large East Carolina University. Spanning much of the rural Black Belt, the inland northeast has by far the highest proportion of black residents of any of the state's regions and consequently is decidedly Democratic, though not overwhelmingly so.
Before the civil rights era produced a lasting partisan realignment, the northeast was unquestionably the most Democratic region in the state. JFK carried the region by 49 points and even in 1964 it was still Lyndon Johnson's best region, with him winning by 31 percent. However, in 1968 it gave Dixiecrat George Wallace his best performance with a 45 percent plurality and ever since it has been closer to the state overall than it was before civil rights.
Vestiges of that legacy still remain as many conservative whites are still registered as Democrats. The region exhibits a higher degree of ticket-splitting by those conservative Democrats, but by 2015 such practice has declined tremendously from the highs of decades past. Still, Democrats are nearly guaranteed to carry the Northeast in presidential years when minority turnout is high. Pat McCrory couldn't win it in 2012, while Sen. Richard Burr won by just 3 points in 2010, despite both of them winning by 12 percent statewide.
Unlike their fellow party members in the major urban areas, Democratic voters here tend to have considerably lower education levels and are more religious. The largest disparity between presidential voting patterns and support for the 2012 ban on same-sex marriage was seen in rural Eastern North Carolina, particularly among African Americans.
In the long term, this region will likely continue to stagnate relative to the economic and population growth of the rest of the state. While Republicans are about at their ceiling for presidential support among white voters, Democrats still have a little room to fall downballot and we should continue to expect smaller margins in the coming years, but most of the red trend has already taken place in the region.
The Outer Banks
Although the Outer Banks are physically just the Atlantic coastal counties, the inland Albemarle and Pamlico Sound counties constitute a broader cultural region. While it shares many factors in common with the Northeast further to the west, such as being relatively rural, there are a few clear differences. Without the history of large-scale plantation agriculture, the rural black population is much less significant, making this the second whitest region after the Mountains. Consequently, the Outer Banks are now the most Republican region of North Carolina.
Looking to the future, the region should become even redder as the remaining conservative Democrats realign, relatively well-off Republican-leaning retirees move to locales such as Morehead City or Dare County, and suburban sprawl pushes further from Virginia Beach across the state line. Fortunately for Democrats, the Outer Banks are by far the smallest region in the state and will likely remain that way.
Named for the sandy soil of the region, the Sandhills shares the most similarities with the Northeast, but in contrast has a major city in Fayetteville. The large Fort Bragg Army base has an enormous influence on the local economy and demographics of the city, which has a sizable number of non-white residents. In addition to Fayetteville, many rural counties also have a significant minority population, making this the least white region overall and giving it a clear Democratic lean, especially downballot where McCrory only won by 0.6 percent.
Another demographically unique aspect of the Sandhills is that it has the largest Native American population in the Eastern United States. While the Lumbee Indians are not a federally recognized tribe and historically had a higher degree of racial mixing with whites than tribes out west, many Lumbee consider themselves to be the product of a distinct cultural heritage. Robeson County (Lumberton) has the largest Native population and is consequently the most Democratic in the region downballot. However, thanks to a high rate of ticket-splitting and declining Democratic support among non-black conservatives, even many Lumbees, it is trending Republican.
In the northern edges of the region, the Sandhills demonstrate clearer differences with much of rural, Eastern North Carolina. The historic golf resort town of Pinehurst is a popular vacation and retirement destination with upscale conservative-leaning voters, making Moore County solidly Republican. North of Fayetteville, Harnett and Lee counties are increasingly influenced by the suburban sprawl of both Fayetteville and the Research Triangle. Those white exurbanites are solidly Republican and made the difference in current 2nd District Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers' initial 2010 election.
Although in the long term the Sandhills are likely to trend Republican because of the decline of ticket-splitting and increase in suburbanization, its large minority population will ensure it remains an essential part of a statewide Democratic victory for some time to come.
Southeastern North Carolina is home to the major port city of Wilmington, along with Jacksonville and the Camp Lejeune Marine base. Its relatively accessible and more temperate beaches make this region a go-to destination along the coast for beachgoers and retirees. Wilmington's New Hanover County has grown tremendously in recent decades thanks to the climate, housing costs, a burgeoning film industry, and a major UNC system campus. These factors have allowed New Hanover County to buck the sharply Republican long-term trend of the broader region, but unlike other major metropolitan areas, this has simply meant the county has stayed light red.
However, suburban sprawl and the influx of old, white retirees has made the Southeast overall quite strongly Republican up and down the ballot in recent years. You can see this most clearly in Brunswick and Pender counties adjacent to Wilmington, but also in the quickly growing Wilmington suburbs within New Hanover County itself. Further inland, Columbus and Duplin counties share more in common demographically with the Black Belt than with white suburbanites. Many conservative whites there regularly split their tickets for like-minded Democratic candidates, but this phenomenon is declining precipitously as time goes on.
The Southeast should continue to trend Republican much like the Outer Banks, thanks to the influx of retirees, the lack of a lure for new minority residents, and the decline of ticket-splitting. Wilmington itself will increasingly stand in contrast to its heavily-white suburbs, but the city proper is not enough to stop the region from becoming redder.
I was born and raised in the Triad's largest city of Greensboro, the third largest in North Carolina. Greensboro, its sister city Winston-Salem, and the smaller city of High Point constitute the core of the Triad, while all three have significant minority populations that make them strongly Democratic. Much like the other Piedmont region of Charlotte, the suburbs of these three main cities and the nearby rural areas are all overwhelmingly white and consequently very Republican. Therefore, the region is light red overall and has a similar partisanship as the Charlotte region.
The Piedmont Triad historically was dominated by the tobacco and textiles industries. High Point still holds its annual furniture market, which attracts buyers from all over the country, but competition from foreign imports has dampened its local economic impact. Further east, Burlington was also once a major manufacturing town, but in recent years has become more of a suburb to Greensboro and even the Triangle for many commuters, thanks to cheaper housing costs.
The long-term decline of manufacturing and tobacco in North Carolina has caused this region to be relatively stagnant compared to the Triangle, Charlotte, or even Wilmington. A lack of a unique economic engine such as finance, the military, the beach, or a highly educated workforce has left the Triad without a viable solution for long-term growth.
Like much of North Carolina, affordable housing and a few major universities do draw in some new residents. Greensboro's downtown has seen a modest revitalization that is attracting some young, educated residents, as well as artistic types, although this occurrence is dwarfed by similar trends in other regions. More importantly though, the city is drawing in Hispanic and Asian immigrants who work in low-skilled jobs.
Although the region lacks the economic and cultural allures of Raleigh or Charlotte and consequently exhibits no real Democratic trend, its urban centers are still an essential component of any statewide Democratic victory. While it was unsurprising that former Sen. Kay Hagan lost the Triad in 2014 despite winning it by over 6 points in her 2008 rout, the 9-point drubbing in her own home region was indicative of the problems Democrats faced with minority turnout last year.
Don't expect the Triad to trend significantly Democratic over the long term, but with racial demographics reflective of the state at large, it will continue to be a heavily-contested region in statewide elections.
The final region is the most dynamic, high-growth part of the entire state. Thanks to the state government in Raleigh, the three world-renowned research universities of Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and NC State, a highly educated workforce, and the Research Triangle Park, this region has been booming for well over a decade. Fortunately for Democrats, the Triangle's high growth rate shows no signs of subsiding.
It cannot be overstated just how important higher education has been to the success of the Triangle. Unlike everywhere else in the state, half or more of adults have college degrees in large portions of this region including Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham. A skilled workforce, partly created by the top three universities in the state, has driven employment in white-collar jobs, sustained two major university research hospitals, and led to a burgeoning tech industry.
With the appeal of good local schools and a lower cost of living, the Raleigh area in particular has attracted many residents from outside the South. The suburb of Cary earned the derisive nickname "Containment Area for Relocated Yankees" from some native North Carolinians because its spectacular growth rate, along with that of the rest of the region, has transformed the demographic landscape of the region. The Triangle seems relatively cosmopolitan in comparison to the rest of the state and has established a vibrant cultural scene including everything from the arts to craft breweries.
Elsewhere in the region, there are exurbs that have spread into Chatham and Johnston counties, with the former leaning somewhat Democratic and the latter being one of the most Republican counties in Eastern North Carolina. Rural communities north of Raleigh and Durham, such as Henderson and Oxford, share more in common with the rest of the Black Belt than with the core of the Triangle given how thoroughly the big cities have changed in recent decades.
While the Triangle has leaned clearly to the left of the state for a few decades now, the swift rate of population growth has been a major factor in North Carolina's trend in a more progressive direction. The region was clearly Obama's best in the state when he won by 16 points in 2012 and it hasn't voted Republican since George H.W. Bush won it by 5 points in 1988. Unfortunately for Democrats, stellar performance among high-info voters in the Triangle isn't yet enough to offset low minority turnout in midterm elections. Hagan's margin was 2 points wider here than Obama's, but in the end her statewide loss was just marginally narrower than the president's.
In sharp contrast to the Democratic voting base in much of the rest of the state, Triangle-area Democrats are also far more likely to be consistently progressive, while many suburban Republicans are fairly moderate. This region was the only one to reject the same-sex marriage ban in 2012. Demographic change in regions such as the Triangle is why North Carolina is steadily becoming more progressive on the issues. Even though North Carolina Democrats currently are less popular than they were a generation ago, the ones who are running for and winning statewide office are considerably more progressive than the moderates and conservatives of yesteryear.
While east and west have long been the dividing line in North Carolina's political culture, that is increasingly coming to an end. With the rise of the so-called "Obama coalition" of minorities, young people, the well-educated, etc., Democrats are finding success among the urban centers of the western Piedmont and losing their one-time base of rural, conservative whites in the east. In total, these changes ensure that as the state's demographics change, North Carolina will become more progressive than ever before.