Located in the Foothills region of North Carolina, Burke County straddles the transition between the state’s Piedmont Plateau and the Appalachian Mountains. Burke’s county seat and largest municipality is the centrally-located city of Morganton, which serves as a principal city of the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton Metropolitan Statistical Area (known locally as the Unifour). Outside of Morganton, most of the county’s population is clustered in its eastern third, which includes the smaller towns of Connelly Springs, Drexel, Hildebran, Long View, Rhodhiss, Rutherford College, and Valdese. The county’s eastern portions are densely populated due to flat terrain of the Piedmont Plateau, and many residents find work in the nearby city of Hickory in Catawba County. The county’s western third, meanwhile, is much less populated due to the mountainous terrain of the Appalachians, containing only the small town of Glen Alpine.
As of mid-2017, Burke County has a substantial population of around 90,246 residents, although it is expected to grow by only around 1% between 2010 and 2020. This slow growth rate is typical of counties in the region, as is the county’s struggle in recent decades to maintain agricultural and textile manufacturing industries historically vital to the local economy. However, Burke has been successful in diversifying its economy to include other forms of manufacturing, and significant economic output is still driven by forest products and government services (Burke is home to the North Carolina School for the Deaf, multiple state healthcare facilities, and a state penitentiary). The county also contains geographic features that serve as significant sources of tourist revenue, including Table Rock in Pisgah National Forest, Linville Falls, and Lake James.
One of Burke County’s most notable sons was United States Senator Sam Ervin, a Democrat who served North Carolina on Capitol Hill from 1954 to 1974. Ervin was a staunch defender of segregation despite his reputation for supporting civil liberties, and he gained prominence near the end of his tenure in the Senate as the Chair of the Senate Watergate Committee.
Like most counties in North Carolina, Burke County was solidly Democratic in the decades following the Civil War, although it joined other areas of the Foothills region in trending Republican around the turn of the twentieth century. Burke returned to the Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s to support the New Deal coalition, but it resumed its long-term Republican trend soon after. Democratic presidential nominees have since only won the county in Johnson’s 1964 landslide and Carter’s 1976 sweep of the South, with Republicans steadily gaining ground otherwise – Donald Trump’s 2016 performance in Burke County was the best of any presidential nominee since 1972.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+9 (Leans Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+16 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+21 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+21 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+26 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+28 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+41 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 67.42%
Hillary Clinton – 28.91%
Richard Burr – 65.52%
Deborah Ross – 29.87%
Pat McCrory – 63.20%
Roy Cooper – 34.54%
Burke’s trend towards the GOP is not surprising for a predominantly white, rural area experiencing economic difficulties, particularly considering the county’s location in the heavily Republican Foothills region. Although Burke stopped voting Democratic in presidential elections long ago, it still supported Democrats in statewide races for some time – the county voted for Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and then-Attorney General Roy Cooper in 2008, but it has since only voted for Republicans in statewide elections. This trend is also present in local races, as Democrats held two of five seats on the county commission until the GOP took full control of the body in 2012. In terms of voter registration, a plurality of voters in Burke were Democrats until July 2015 – Republicans gained a voter registration advantage at that time and currently hold a 36% to 32% plurality (an additional 32% of voters are unaffiliated).
Within Burke County, Democrats perform best within the relatively diverse Morganton – Hillary Clinton won three Morganton precincts in 2016, Deborah Ross won four, and Roy Cooper won five. The county’s main GOP stronghold can be found in the densely-populated areas east of Morganton, where predominantly white voters in the region’s small towns are largely supportive of conservative causes. The mountainous, sparsely populated areas west of Morganton are politically the most independent, having recently trended Republican despite historically supporting Democrats.
Burke County will likely continue to trend Republican, with GOP candidates finding support in all areas of the county outside of Morganton. Burke’s increasingly Republican identity can be seen in its congressional and legislative representation – the county is currently represented by Congressman Patrick McHenry (CD-10), state Senator Warren Daniel (SD-46), and state Representatives Hugh Blackwell (HD-86) and David Rogers (HD-112), all Republicans. They days of Democratic dominance in Burke County have passed, and although Democrats have had occasional success in statewide and local races within the last decade, the county’s future is likely to be bright red.