Caldwell County is located in the northern Foothills region of North Carolina, with the Piedmont Plateau to its east and the Blue Ridge to its west. Caldwell’s largest city and county seat is the centrally-located Lenoir, a principal city of the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton Metropolitan Statistical Area (known locally as the Unifour). Most of the county’s smaller municipalities are found in the rolling Piedmont hills southeast of Lenoir, including the village of Cedar Rock and the towns of Cajah’s Mountain, Gamewell, Granite Falls, Hudson, Rhodhiss, and Sawmills. Many residents of the county’s southeastern half find work through commute in the largest Unifour city of Hickory, a small portion of which is also located in the county. Caldwell’s northwestern half, meanwhile, is sparsely populated due to mountainous Blue Ridge terrain, containing only the small town of Blowing Rock on the Watauga County border.
Caldwell County has a substantial population of 83,303 residents as of mid-2017, although it is expected to grow by only around 2% this decade. The county’s slow growth is reflective of economic frustration present throughout rural areas of western North Carolina, as recent years have seen loss in manufacturing jobs and increased unemployment throughout the region. The county’s economy, while experiencing difficulties, is largely based on agriculture, furniture production, textile production, and other forms of manufacturing, with tourism providing an additional source of substantial revenue. Mountainous sites popular among tourists are present throughout the county, including Blowing Rock in the town of the same name, Hibriten Mountain outside of Lenoir, and the small Brushy Mountain range in the county’s eastern portion. Caldwell’s furniture industry, meanwhile, has also given it notability – a furniture magnate who founded Broyhill Furniture in Lenoir was also the father of Jim Broyhill, a Republican who served nearly two decades in the United States House of Representatives before being appointed to finish a term in the Senate in 1986.
Caldwell was one of North Carolina’s most heavily Democratic counties throughout much of the post-Civil War era, but it joined the rest of the Foothills in trending Republican during the first few decades of the twentieth century. The county returned to the Democratic Party in the 1930s and 1940s to support Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, but it has since become solidly Republican – Caldwell has voted for the GOP nominee in almost every presidential election from the 1950s onward, only supporting Democrats in Johnson’s 1964 landslide and Carter’s 1976 Southern sweep. Today, Caldwell County is one of the strongest Republican counties in North Carolina, regularly providing GOP candidates with some of their largest margins statewide. Donald Trump won over 70% of the county’s vote in 2016, the best performance of any presidential candidate in Caldwell since the 1880s.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+19 (Safe Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+29 (Safe Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+34 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+33 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+37 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+39 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+52 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 73.30%
Hillary Clinton – 23.20%
Richard Burr – 71.09%
Deborah Ross – 23.77%
Pat McCrory – 69.63%
Roy Cooper – 27.81%
Within Caldwell County, Republicans are strongest in the predominantly white, historically conservative areas southeast of Lenoir, where much of the county’s population is concentrated. The sparsely populated, mountainous areas northwest of Lenoir have historically identified with the Democratic tendencies of Appalachia but have since trended Republican – Donald Trump had a strong appeal in both of these areas, winning close to or above 80% of the vote in most of the county’s precincts. Democrats, meanwhile, perform best in the relatively diverse precincts in and around centrally-located Lenoir, with Roy Cooper winning one Lenoir-area precinct and nearly carrying a few others.
Caldwell County’s deep support for the Republican Party extends to down-ballot statewide and local races, with the GOP having carried the county in every statewide partisan election since at least 2008. Locally, Republicans rarely face opposition in the general election – not a single Democrat has run to join the county’s Board of Commissioners or Soil and Water Conservation Board within the most recent cycles, or to serve as the county’s Sheriff, District Attorney, or Register of Deeds. Local Republican control in Caldwell has only a few exceptions, as the county’s long-time Clerk of Superior Court is a registered Democrat and one member of the otherwise GOP-dominated Board of Education is unaffiliated with either party. Caldwell’s strong Republican tendencies are further reflected in its congressional and legislative representation – the county is currently represented by GOP Congressman Mark Meadows (CD-11), state Senator Deanna Ballard (SD-45), and state Representative Destin Hall (HD-87). Redistricting in 2018 will result in the county being moved to the state Senate district of GOP Senator Warren Daniel (SD-46).
Republicans also have a nearly twenty-point voter registration advantage over Democrats in the county, an extremely strong showing for a metric that generally skews towards Democrats in North Carolina. As of April 2018, 45% of registered voters in the county are Republicans and 26% are Democrats, with an additional 28% choosing not to affiliate with either party and 1% identifying as Libertarian.
Caldwell County is undoubtedly one of the most Republican counties in North Carolina, and this distinction is unlikely to change in future years. The county’s voter base is predominantly white and markedly conservative, with Donald Trump’s right-wing populism fostering additional GOP support among voters experiencing the region’s economic hardship. Heightened polarization in national politics is contributing to the county’s Republican trend, as voters are less likely to support a Democratic Party increasingly dissociated with conservatism. Caldwell’s growing support for the GOP is showing no sign of slowing down, so Democrats will likely need to develop a considerably different message in order to appeal to the county’s voters.