Located in the northern Central Piedmont region of North Carolina, Caswell County incorporates a portion of the state’s border with Virginia. Caswell is a predominantly rural county, with its small population of 23,692 residents as of mid-2018 making it the least populous county in the region. Caswell’s largest municipality is the centrally-located town of Yanceyville, which serves as the county seat and is home to around two thousand residents. The county’s only other municipality is the small town of Milton, which is located on the Virginia border and has slightly under two hundred residents. The Dan River flows through Caswell, and it shares the popular Hyco Lake with the neighboring Person County.
Created in 1777 from the northern portion of Orange County and named for the state’s first governor, Caswell County gained early statewide prominence – a farm in the county invented the vital flue-curing process for tobacco, drawing the tobacco industry to the area and allowing the local economy to flourish. The county was also well-known in statewide politics – for a period in the early 1800s, locals Bartlett Yancey and Romulus Mitchell Sanders served as Speaker of the NC Senate and Speaker of the NC House, leading observers to remark that all successful statewide legislation had to make its way through Caswell County.
Tobacco farming drove the local economy for much of its history, with soybeans, cereal grains, and livestock furthering the county’s agricultural output. Textile manufacturing and mineral mining, while secondary to agriculture, have also made important contributions to local revenue. However, recent decades have seen decreased demand for tobacco lead to economic stagnation in the county, harming farmers and causing many residents to leave for the state’s prosperous metropolitan areas. The county has experienced no net population growth since 2010, although demographic changes have occurred – African Americans once comprised over half of the county’s population but now make up less than a third, reflecting a particular desire among African American families to leave for the state’s urban communities.
In the decades following the Civil War, Caswell’s newly-enfranchised African American community strongly supported the Republican Party, driving the county to vote for every GOP presidential nominee from the end of the Civil War to 1896. However, the year 1898 saw racial conflict erupt statewide as white Democrats sought to stymie multiracial political coalitions – voter intimidation and violent insurrections prevented African Americans from casting ballots, allowing Democrats to retake control of the General Assembly and legally disenfranchise black voters. The next presidential election saw Democrats carry Caswell in a landslide, finalizing the county’s swift transition from a Republican bastion to a Democratic stronghold.
Caswell remained strongly Democratic until 1968, when segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace won the county by appealing to white Democrats looking to distance themselves from the increasing liberalism of their national party. The year 1968 also saw a federal judge finally order Caswell to desegregate its schools, making it one of the last counties nationwide to do so after a number of deferrals. White Democrats again crossed party lines to support Richard Nixon in his 1972 reelection bid – areas like Caswell County were prime targets for the Nixon’s Southern strategy, which sought to attract white voters to the GOP through racially coded messaging. Caswell returned to supporting Democratic presidential nominees from 1976 to 1996, but it has since flipped again to the GOP in presidential races, supporting the Republican nominee in nearly every presidential election from 2000 onward. The lone exception was 2008, when Barack Obama was able to overpower the Republican trend of white voters through increased African American turnout. From 2000 to 2012, the county was noticeably close in presidential elections, never giving either nominee a margin of over 3.5% – however, 2016 changed this, with Donald Trump soaring to an impressive 11.1% victory as white voters continued to abandon the Democrats.
1992 Presidential PVI: D+18 (Safe Democratic)
1996 Presidential PVI: D+4 (Tossup)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+3 (Tossup)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+1 (Tossup)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+4 (Tossup)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+6 (Leans Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+13 (Likely Republican)
Donald Trump – 54.44%
Hillary Clinton – 43.29%
Richard Burr – 54.78%
Deborah Ross – 42.71%
Pat McCrory – 52.61%
Roy Cooper – 45.97%
Caswell County’s recent Republican trend is also present in statewide elections – the county supported Democrats for eight of ten statewide offices in 2008 and seven of ten statewide offices in 2012, but it then shifted to supporting Republicans for nine of ten statewide offices in 2016. The only statewide Democratic nominee to win Caswell in 2016 despite its rapid GOP shift was long-time Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who prevailed in the county by a mere twenty-nine votes. The county’s Republican trend can also be seen in terms of voter registration – the proportion of registered Democrats in the county has fallen from 69% in 2004 to 51% in 2018, while the proportion of registered Republicans has increased from 18% in 2004 to 21% in 2018. The proportion of unaffiliated voters, meanwhile, has grown substantially from 13% in 2004 to 28% since in 2018. It should be noted that while Democrats do still have a large voter registration advantage in most North Carolina counties, this advantage is often not reflected in election results.
On a local level, Caswell County’s Democratic roots have endured. Democrats currently have a 6-1 advantage over Republicans on the County Commission, a 2-1 advantage over Republicans among elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, and a 5-2 advantage over two unaffiliated voters on the Board of Education. Moreover, the county’s Sheriff, Register of Deeds, Clerk of Superior Court, and Coroner (one of the few remaining in the state) are Democrats, while the county’s District Attorney is a Republican. However, it should be noted that the vast majority of Democratic-held offices in the county were uncontested by Republicans in recent cycles. Of the few recent county elections with GOP candidates, Republicans won all but one.
Within Caswell County, Democrats perform best in the central precinct containing Yanceyville, the northeastern precinct containing Milton, and a rural precinct in the western part of the county. All three of these precincts have significantly higher African American populations than the county as a whole, with African American voters largely responsible for their Democratic tendencies. The precinct directly to the east of Yanceyville is red on the maps above, but it voted for a number of other statewide Democratic candidates due to intermediate turnout among African American voters. This precinct contains the former county seat of Leasburg, which has since been unincorporated. The remainder of the county’s precincts, meanwhile, are now heavily Republican in federal and statewide elections, with their predominantly white populations having trended heavily towards the GOP in recent years. Most of the county’s precincts are still willing to vote Democratic in relatively non-polarized local elections, which have not seen the same Republican trend that polarizing federal and statewide elections have.
Due to Caswell’s small population, the county generally has little influence in its congressional and legislative representation. In Congress, Caswell is represented by Republican Mark Walker (CD-06), whose district is anchored by heavily Republican exurbs and rural areas around Greensboro. In the state Senate, meanwhile, the county is represented by Democrat Mike Woodard (SD-22), whose district is based in urban, staunchly progressive Durham. In the state House, Caswell is represented by Republican Bert Jones (HD-65), whose district is anchored by strongly Republican sections of the neighboring Rockingham County. In 2016, Caswell voted for Republicans Walker and Jones but against Democrat Woodard, albeit by a mere thirty-eight votes. However, recent court-mandated redistricting will result in Caswell’s legislative representation completely changing after the 2018 elections. In the state Senate, Caswell will move into the district of Republican President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (renumbered as SD-30), which is also anchored by the pro-GOP Rockingham County. In the state House, meanwhile, Caswell will move into the district of Democrat Graig Meyer (HD-50), which is based in strongly Democratic areas of Orange County. Caswell will likely have no say in its switch from a Democratic state senator and a Republican state representative to a Republican state senator and a Democratic state representative, as the number of votes it produces is simply too small to outweigh other parts of its new districts.
Looking ahead, Caswell County will likely continue to trend Republican – more and more white conservatives are abandoning their Democratic roots every election, and the Democrats’ African American base is shrinking as African American families opt to relocate to metropolitan areas. Despite being close to North Carolina’s geographic center, Caswell is demographically and politically much closer to eastern part of the state – its current politics are marked by the two pro-Republican trends just described, but Democrats still maintain local government control and a hefty voter registration advantage. Democrats will need to increase African American turnout and win back white voters if they want to return to dominance in Caswell, but unless they do so, the county will likely soon become even more Republican than it is today.