Bladen is the “mother county” of North Carolina – created in 1734, its once-limitless territory has since been used to form over half of all one hundred counties in the state. Still the fourth-largest county in North Carolina by land area, Bladen encompasses a rural portion of the state’s southeastern Coastal Plain, with a population of 34,393 as of mid-2017. The county is home to a large stretch of the Cape Fear River and a number of prominent lakes, although far fewer than were once present. Among the county’s existing lakes are the mysterious Carolina Bays, ovular depressions known for their uncertain origins and historical importance to Native American tribes.
Like other Coastal Plain counties, Bladen is home to a sizeable African American population – 35% of the county’s residents are African American as of the 2010 census. Most other residents are white, along with a small Native American population and a quickly-growing Hispanic community. However, Bladen as a whole has lost population since 2010, with residents from rural areas opting to follow economic growth to urban centers elsewhere in the state. Despite this trend, the county has retained a sizeable agricultural sector specializing in products like peanuts, tobacco, and livestock, and manufacturing still plays an important role in the local economy. Bladen’s largest municipality and county seat is the centrally-located Elizabethtown, and the second largest town, Bladenboro, can be found in the county’s southwestern corner. Smaller towns include Clarkton, Dublin, East Arcadia, Tar Heel, and White Lake, the last of which surrounds a well-known lake and resort of the same name.
Politically, Bladen County is by far one of the most unique in the state. The county is home to a large population of white, conservative Democrats (today known as Blue Dogs) who have dominated the politics of southeastern North Carolina for centuries. The demographic carried the county for Democrats in presidential elections throughout the twentieth century, voting Republican only in the GOP landslides of 1928 and 1972. Like similar areas, Bladen also voted for segregationist American Independent Party candidate George Wallace in 1968.
However, the increasing polarization of social issues in America’s two-party system has perhaps affected the politics of no group more than white, conservative Democrats in the South, and Bladen County is a prime example. Recent decades have seen the county experience a sharp Republican trend in federal elections as white, conservative Democrats abandon their party’s presidential nominees in favor of the social conservatism of the modern GOP. Bladen voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry by a margin of sixty-five votes in 2004, marking the first time it supported a Republican presidential nominee in a non-landslide year since 1900. Obama narrowly carried the county in 2008 and 2012 due to increased African American turnout, but Bladen switched once more to the GOP in 2016, voting for Trump by a margin of 9.4%. This election marked the end of Bladen County’s recent history of close presidential election results, and Trump’s margin in the county was the highest in any presidential election since 1996.
1992 Presidential PVI: D+19 (Safe Democratic)
1996 Presidential PVI: D+10 (Leans Democratic)
2000 Presidential PVI: D+8 (Leans Democratic)
2004 Presidential PVI: D+2 (Tossup)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+5 (Tossup)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+2 (Tossup)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+11 (Likely Republican)
Donald Trump – 53.78%
Hillary Clinton – 44.40%
Richard Burr – 52.72%
Deborah Ross – 44.76%
Pat McCrory – 52.73%
Roy Cooper – 46.07%
Bladen County has seen a similar shift towards the GOP in statewide races – it voted Democratic in every statewide election in 2008 and 2012, but it supported Republicans in six of the twelve statewide races in 2016 (including the three shown above). However, Democrats still hold a 57% to 16% voter registration advantage over Republicans in the county, as many white conservatives still identify as Democrats despite their recent trends at the ballot box.
Within the county, politics is largely aligned with race, as African American voters are strongly Democratic and most white voters have moved towards the GOP. The two central precincts in the maps above split the county seat of Elizabethtown, and both are heavily Democratic due to the town’s high African American population. The two blue precincts to Elizabethtown’s southeast are also heavily African American but much more rural, with the southeasternmost precinct containing the small town of East Arcadia. The northwesternmost blue precinct in the county contains the small town of Tar Heel and almost always votes for Democrats, although by a smaller margin than those previously mentioned.
Meanwhile, Republicans find strength in the county’s rural northeastern and southwestern precincts, none of which contain large African American populations. The resort town of White Lake is located in one of the dark red northeastern precincts, and both Bladenboro and Dublin are found in the southwest. The most competitive precincts in the county are located directly above and below Elizabethtown, although each of them flipped to the GOP in 2016. The town of Clarkton is located in the light red precinct directly below Elizabethtown.
Bladen’s trend towards the Republican Party is also evident in its local government. The county commission had eight Democrats and one Republican before 2016, but the election saw Republican candidates pick up two of the nine seats. Another two Democrats have switched their party affiliation to Republican since the election, meaning the GOP now has a 5-4 majority. This rapid change of circumstances was representative of the county’s trend as a whole, and Republicans will likely continue to make gains as they begin to challenge seats previously won uncontested by Democrats.
Bladen’s notable political shift is further epitomized by state Representative William Brisson (HD-22), who has represented the county in the North Carolina House of Representatives since 2006. Brisson, a native of Dublin, had long been the last truly conservative Democrat in the legislature, resisting multiple calls from Republicans to switch parties despite consistently voting with the GOP on partisan legislation. However, Brisson finally made the switch in October 2017, giving Republicans their current 75-45 advantage in the House. Bladen County is represented in the NC Senate by Republican Bill Rabon (SD-08), and it is split between the districts of GOP Congressmen David Rouzer (CD-07) and Robert Pittenger (CD-09) in the US House of Representatives. However, each of these districts are anchored by heavily Republican areas on the coast or in south Charlotte, so they would vote Republican even against Bladen’s opposition. The county was previously represented in Congress by Congressman Mike McIntyre, who was a prominent Blue Dog and arguably the last truly conservative Democrat on Capitol Hill.
In future elections, Bladen County will undoubtedly continue to trend Republican, and Democrats’ voter registration advantage will soon dissipate. Some of the shift in 2016 may have been due to lower turnout caused by Hurricane Matthew, although the movement of white, conservative Blue Dogs to the GOP is a much longer-term phenomenon. Democrats may hope to maintain strength in Bladen with high African American turnout and the continued support of remaining Blue Dogs, although it is increasingly evident that the county’s shift towards the GOP is likely a permanent one.
To access the 2013 version of this profile written by John Wynne, please click here.