The influence of African Americans in North Carolina politics has grown over the last decade. Before 2008, in presidential elections, Blacks constituted about 19% of the electorate. In both 2008 and 2012 they were 22% and 23%, respectively.
In part, this is due to the historic efforts of the Obama campaigns to register and turn out as many African Americans as possible – in their words, “expanding the electorate.” But the changes in the last decade are also attributable to an equally historic phenomenon, that of the “Great Remigration” of African Americans back to the South. This demographic change has benefited the Democratic Party, as African Americans are the party’s most loyal supporters. If anything, the Democrats’ hold on this group has strengthened with the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party movement. One of the big questions going into 2016 is whether this group will continue to turn out as they did during Obama’s elections. In North Carolina, even a small reduction in Black turnout from 2012 could turn a very narrow Republican victory in the presidential race into a comfortable one.
The ten counties in North Carolina with the highest number of African Americans, as a percentage of registered voters:
1. Hertford (62.68%)
2. Edgecombe (61.03%)
3. Bertie (60.34%)
4. Northampton (58.77%)
5. Halifax (54.02%)
6. Warren (53.04%)
7. Vance (52.28%)
8. Washington (51.10%)
9. Anson (44.55%)
10. Martin (44.24%)
All ten of these counties supported Barack Obama in each of his two election victories. All of these counties save Warren saw Obama increase his margin of victory in 2012 from 2008. And all but one of them, Martin, went for John Kerry in 2004. These are all “Black Belt” counties with a high enslaved population during the antebellum era.
As of November 6th, 2012, the composition of registered voters was 22.45% African American. As of August 23rd, 2014, the figure stood at a virtually identical 22.43%. The following 10 counties saw the largest increase in this group, as a percentage of registered voters:
1. Nash (+0.85%)
2. Scotland (+0.73%)
3. Washington (+0.60%)
4. Gates (+0.51%)
5. Vance (+0.50%)
6. Perquimans (+0.45%)
7. Cabarrus (+0.42%)
8. Mecklenburg (+0.41%)
9. Richmond (+0.36%)
10. Bertie (+0.35%)
These counties are all Black Belt counties, with the exception of urban Mecklenburg and suburban/exurban Cabarrus. Cabarrus County in particular has seen a large growth in registered African Americans there over the past decade, with a corresponding increase in the Democrats’ share of the two-party vote in this once solidly Republican county.
In the General Assembly, African Americans make up about 24% of that body, which is slightly higher than their overall proportion statewide. The overwhelming majority of Black members come from majority-minority districts. Two notable exceptions are Sen. Val Foushee (D-Orange), who represents a district that is 75% white, and Rep. Robert Reives, who House district is 70% white.
Barack Obama narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 and narrowly lost here in 2012. And Tar Heel voters came very close to electing an African American woman, Linda Coleman, as Lieutenant Governor two years ago; she lost in a razor-thin contest to the current occupant of that office, Dan Forest. Harvey Gantt, former Mayor of Charlotte, received the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate two times, losing in both contests to Senator Jesse Helms.
Looking forward, there is one Black politician from this state who is seen by many to be a rising star: Anthony Foxx, another former Mayor of Charlotte and currently the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Many observers think he has his eye on the U.S. Senate seat presently held by Richard Burr. If elected, Foxx would be the first African American U.S. Senator from North Carolina and only the third Black member of the U.S. Senate, joining Cory Booker of New Jersey and Tim Scott, a fellow native of the Carolinas but a Republican.
In the U.S. Senate race, Kay Hagan will need a high turnout from African Americans in order to save her seat. If African Americans make up 22% or more of the electorate, similar to 2012, then she will be in a good position. But a reversion to 2010 levels of Black turnout, with this group making up 19% or less of the electorate, will likely doom her candidacy.