Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Buncombe County is far different from its Appalachian counterparts – Buncombe has more than twice the population of any other western North Carolina county and is the seventh largest statewide, with a population of 261,532 as of mid-2017. This distinction is due to the presence of Asheville, a flourishing metropolis that serves as the economic and social hub of the western part of the state. Asheville is the county seat and its only incorporated city, with its population of slightly over 90,000 making it around the tenth largest municipality in the state (estimates vary). Much of Buncombe’s remaining population is situated in the urban areas directly outside the city limits, and the county also contains five smaller towns – Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Montreat, Weaverville, and Woodfin.
Asheville has a long-standing reputation as a beacon of progressive culture – the city’s 1920 election of Lillian Exum Clement marked the entrance of the first woman into the General Assembly, and the city’s reputation continues today as liberal millennials and retirees alike are attracted to the area. Asheville’s population will increase by an expected 13.5% between 2010 and 2020, a high growth rate representative of its cultural and economic appeal. Tourism provides a significant source of revenue to the urban center, while rural areas outside of the county’s urban core are driven by the agricultural, mining, and manufacturing sectors. Buncombe County as a whole is home to a number of prominent institutions of higher education, including the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the smaller private schools of Warren Wilson College and Montreat College. College students contribute significantly to the cultural atmosphere of the area.
Buncombe County has historically been a political bellwether, with Democratic support among working-class urban dwellers and rural residents alike countering the Republican strength of wealthier, suburban voters. The county has voted for the winner of all but five presidential elections since 1900, including the winner of all but one presidential election since 1964. That one election was 2016 – Buncombe voted for Hillary Clinton by over fourteen points despite Donald Trump’s victory nationwide, indicating that the county is experiencing a substantial, lasting trend towards the Democratic Party. Indeed, Buncombe County has become significantly more Democratic in recent years as the urban population grows and suburban voters abandon the GOP, suggesting the county has likely lost its bellwether status in favor of entrenched Democratic support. This trend comes even as the county’s rural areas become more Republican, as seen in rural Appalachia as a whole.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+3 (Tossup)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+7 (Lean Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+9 (Lean Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: D+2 (Tossup)
2008 Presidential PVI: D+7 (Lean Democratic)
2012 Presidential PVI: D+9 (Lean Democratic)
2016 Presidential PVI: D+12 (Likely Democratic)
Hillary Clinton – 54.30%
Donald Trump – 40.10%
Deborah Ross – 55.19%
Richard Burr – 40.79%
Roy Cooper – 59.31%
Pat McCrory – 37.58%
Buncombe County has also become solidly Democratic in statewide elections, voting for the Democratic nominee in every statewide race since at least 2008. Today, Buncombe is by far the most heavily Democratic county in western North Carolina, unsurprising given that it contains the region’s largest urban area. Buncombe is often the only county in western North Carolina to vote Democratic in statewide elections, although Watauga and Jackson counties – each home to one of the region’s other two public universities – occasionally do as well. Buncombe’s Democratic strength is further present in its voter registration, as 39% of voters in the county are registered Democrats while only 24% are registered Republicans. This makes Buncombe one of only six counties in western North Carolina with more Democrats than Republicans – the other five are nearby rural counties sharing Appalachia’s strong Democratic heritage despite their recent shifts towards the GOP. An additional 37% of registered voters in Buncombe are unaffiliated, a rather large proportion but one typical of counties in the region.
Within Buncombe County, Democrats find strength among urban voters in and around Asheville, while Republicans are strongest in the county’s small towns and rural areas. Democrats swept Asheville’s precincts in all three of the maps above, as well as the small town of Woodfin in a precinct north of Asheville and one of the precincts in the town of Black Mountain near the county’s eastern border. Clinton and Ross were both unable to make significant inroads in the county’s rural areas, although Ross did win one rural precinct to the east of Asheville. The gubernatorial race, meanwhile, saw anti-House Bill 2 backlash hurt McCrory even among Buncombe’s relatively moderate rural voters, allowing Cooper to win rural precincts to the south and east of Asheville in addition to the precincts containing the small town of Weaverville north of Asheville. Republicans held their ground throughout most rural areas in all three races, although it should be noted that Buncombe’s rural areas are somewhat more competitive than most due to overall cultural liberalism in the county and Appalachia’s historically Democratic roots. Republicans also performed well in two of the county’s other small towns: Biltmore Forest (the isolated red precinct in the gubernatorial map), known for having the second most wealth per capita of any municipality in the state, and Montreat (east of Black Mountain), home to the heavily-religious Montreat College.
The concentration of Buncombe’s Democrats within Asheville makes the county particularly susceptible to gerrymandering by Republicans in the General Assembly. After retaking the legislature in 2010, the GOP noticed an opportunity to flip Buncombe’s county commission, which was then unanimously Democratic. They passed a bill replacing the commission’s five at-large seats with seven new seats, one of which was to be elected at-large and six of which were to be elected using three districts (two members per district). Asheville’s Democrats were packed into one district while rural Republicans were spread across the other two – the bill’s authors intended for Republicans to win all four seats in their two favored districts, giving them a permanent majority of the commission’s seven seats. However, Democrat Ellen Frost won in one of the rural districts by an eighteen-vote margin and has held her seat ever since, providing Democrats with a narrow 4-3 majority despite the gerrymander. Democrats hold all other countywide offices, and they would likely still control the commission unanimously if the prior election system had remained.
Buncombe County has enough residents to be apportioned three districts in the state House, and Republicans hoped to take two of the three by implementing the same district map used for the county commission. However, Democrats John Ager (HD-115) and Brian Turner (HD-116) proceeded to win in the two Republican-favored districts, joining Susan Fisher (HD-114) of the safely Democratic district to make the county’s House delegation unanimously Democratic. Meanwhile, most of the county is included in the urban state Senate district of Democrat Terry Van Duyn (SD-49), while a small portion below Asheville is included in the rural state Senate district of Republican Chuck Edwards (SD-48). On a federal level, Buncombe has historically been the center of its own congressional district, although Republican legislators split the county between two districts ahead of the 2012 elections in order to weaken the position of incumbent Democrat Heath Schuler. The southeastern quarter of the county – including part of Asheville – was moved to the district of GOP Congressman Patrick McHenry (CD-10), while the rest of the county was placed in the district of GOP Congressman Mark Meadows (CD-11).
Although Republicans may enjoy limited success in Buncombe due to favorable district maps, the county as a whole has become solidly Democratic in recent years. Buncombe will likely continue to move left well into the future as the urban population grows and suburban voters abandon the GOP, even as the historically Democratic areas of rural Appalachia trend Republican. Buncombe County was one of only thirteen in North Carolina to provide a larger margin of support to Hillary Clinton in 2016 than to Barack Obama in 2012, and the county is one of only fifteen statewide where Democrats have outpaced Republicans in terms of voter registration since 2004. Republicans will need to develop a broader appeal to urban and suburban voters if they wish to remain competitive in Buncombe, and although they will control local redistricting as long as they maintain control of the General Assembly, the county’s future is becoming more and more blue by the year.