Camden County is a small, rural county located in North Carolina’s northeastern Coastal Plain. With the Virginia border to its north and the Albemarle Sound to its south, Camden’s long, narrow shape makes it one of the region’s five coastal “finger counties.” Other than a small portion of Elizabeth City extending from the neighboring Pasquotank County, Camden has no municipalities, and it adopted the state’s first consolidated city-county government in 2006. Camden’s county seat is a small, unincorporated community of the same name, which serves as one of two census-designated places in the county along with South Mills. The county is part of the Elizabeth City, NC Micropolitan Statistical Area, with its proximity to the Hampton Roads region of southern Virginia further giving it a place in the larger Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC Combined Statistical Area.
With around 10,359 residents as of mid-2017, Camden County has the fifth smallest population of any in North Carolina. However, Camden has grown immensely in recent decades – the county grew by a stunning 45% between 2000 and 2010, primarily due to the large number of incoming retirees from southeastern Virginia and elsewhere. Although the Great Recession took a significant toll on Camden’s growth, incoming retirees have undoubtedly affected the county’s demographics – Camden historically had a high black population characteristic of eastern North Carolina, but the growing number of predominantly white retirees means that the county’s population is today over 80% white.
Camden’s economy has historically been rooted in agriculture, and over one third of the county’s land today is used for the production of crops and livestock. Tourism provides additional revenue to the area, as the Albemarle Sound to the county’s south, the Pasquotank River to the county’s west, and the North River to the county’s east are all popular locations for boating, fishing, and birdwatching. Camden is also home to a section of the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge. Agriculture and tourism will likely continue to drive the county’s economy for years to come, although the recent influx of new residents will certainly have a large economic impact on the area.
Like the rest of eastern North Carolina, Camden County has historically been a Democratic stronghold, voting Democratic in every presidential election of the twentieth century until 1968. That year, third-party segregationist George Wallace carried the county in a landslide as white, rural Southerners began to distance themselves from the increasingly liberal Democratic Party. Camden experienced a mixed voting record over the next few decades, last voting for a Democratic presidential nominee during Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection bid – the county has since only voted for Republicans in presidential elections, supporting the GOP nominee by a larger margin in every election since 2000. Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate to win over 70% of Camden’s vote since 1960, when John F. Kennedy was bolstered by the county’s then-strongly Democratic voter base.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+2 (Tossup)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+4 (Tossup)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+16 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+27 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+39 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+38 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+47 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 70.83%
Hillary Clinton – 25.45%
Richard Burr – 69.98%
Deborah Ross – 26.32%
Pat McCrory – 69.55%
Roy Cooper – 27.76%
Today, Camden County is one of the most heavily Republican in eastern North Carolina, and not just in presidential elections – the county has voted for a Republican in every statewide election since at least 2008, and its current congressional and legislative representation consists of GOP Congressman Walter Jones (CD-03), GOP state Senator Bill Cook (SD-01), and GOP state Representative Bob Steinburg (HD-01). All three of Camden’s precincts are predominantly rural, white, and conservative, providing similar margins of support to GOP candidates in most races. In local elections, however, the county is still competitive – all five county commissioners and the county’s Register of Deeds are Republicans, but the county’s Clerk of Superior Court and Sheriff are both Democrats. Moreover, the county’s Soil and Water Conservation Board has two unaffiliated voters and one Democrat, and the county’s Board of Education is split between two Democrats, two Republicans, and one unaffiliated voter. Elections for both boards are technically nonpartisan.
Democrats were long in the majority among the county’s registered voters, holding a 57%-22%-21% advantage over Republicans and unaffiliated voters as recently as 2004. However, the last decade has seen this advantage dissipate as rural, white conservatives abandon the Democratic Party and incoming retirees develop similar sentiments – Republicans overtook Democrats in voter registration in November 2017, currently holding a slim but growing 31%-30% advantage. A 38% plurality of the county’s current voters are unaffiliated with either party, as the increasing population of conservative retirees overwhelmingly prefers this option. Camden’s shift from a 35-point Democratic advantage to a one-point Republican advantage in voter registration since 2004 is by far the largest of any county statewide, demonstrating the area’s quick but overwhelming political shift from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican.
Camden County’s growth has slowed in recent years, but its trend towards the Republican Party has not – rural conservatives are continuing to abandon their Democratic roots, and the retiree-driven population growth of primarily Republican white voters is outpacing that of primarily Democratic black voters. Camden’s small size may preclude it from having much of an influence in statewide politics, but any effect it does have – now and in future years – will come to benefit the GOP.