Less than twenty miles west of Charlotte, Cleveland County is located on the outskirts of the Charlotte metropolitan area in North Carolina’s western Piedmont. The county borders South Carolina and encompasses part of the state’s Foothills region, a distinct area of transitional terrain between the Piedmont Plateau and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Although predominantly rural in nature, Cleveland has a substantial population of 98,862 residents as of mid-2018 and contains two sizeable cities. The county seat and largest city of Shelby is home to around twenty thousand residents in the central portion of the county, while the city of Kings Mountain is home to around ten thousand residents in the county’s southeastern corner. Scattered throughout the county are an additional thirteen rural towns, almost all of which contain only a few hundred residents – the lone exception is Boiling Springs, which is home to around five thousand residents largely consisting of students enrolled at the private Gardner-Webb University.
Nearly a quarter of Cleveland’s residents are African American, by far the highest proportion of any North Carolina county west of Charlotte. Most African American residents are clustered in and around Shelby, although the county’s rural areas are also home to African American populations much larger than those in surrounding counties. Cleveland’s demographic profile matches those of many rural areas in the eastern part of the state, as does its economic history. The county’s economy has historically been driven by cotton and textile production, although the mid-1900s saw industry falter as production was stifled by foreign competition and lack of modernization. Economic hardship was mirrored by stagnation in population growth – Cleveland’s population increased rapidly for much of its history but has leveled off in recent decades, with population growth of only 2% from 2000 to 2010 and an expected 1% from 2010 to 2020. Today, Shelby is experiencing mild population loss, while other areas of the county are growing slowly. Despite losses in cotton and textile production, agriculture and manufacturing remain vital to the local economy, and the mining of various minerals continually proves to be a lucrative industry.
Cleveland County was strongly Democratic for much of its history, voting for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election from 1876 to 1964. Such a record was initially common among counties in the Foothills, but became increasingly distinct as the Foothills morphed into a Republican stronghold during the early twentieth century. Cleveland’s Democratic tendencies persisted despite regional trends largely due to its commonality with Southern Democrats on racial and cultural issues, as the county’s demographic profile led to increased racial animus and segregationist tendencies among white voters. Indeed, the early 1900s saw Cleveland County become a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity – Shelby, for example, was home to white supremacist Thomas Dixon Jr., who penned a trilogy of pro-KKK novels later adapted in the silent film The Birth of a Nation. The film’s popularity largely catalyzed the formation of the second KKK in 1915, leading to a renewed era of white supremacism and racial terror nationwide.
Cleveland County was also notable as the home of the Shelby Dynasty, a political machine of moderate and conservative Democrats that controlled North Carolina politics from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. The machine’s preferred gubernatorial candidates – including two Shelby natives, O. Max Gardner and Clyde R. Hoey – won five consecutive elections from 1928 to 1944, and it further produced a number of United States Senators, Congressmen, state legislators, and state and federal judges. However, the effects of the machine’s opposition to the New Deal were noticed by voters in the years after World War II, and in 1948, the Shelby Dynasty fell as an opposing liberal faction led by W. Kerr Scott won the Executive Mansion. It should be noted that five years after the end of the machine, future US Senator Kay Hagan was born in Shelby.
The fall of the Shelby Dynasty was accompanied by an overall decrease in local support for the Democratic Party, with conservative white voters distancing themselves from the increasing liberalism of the party’s national and statewide leaders. Cleveland broke its nearly century-long streak of supporting Democratic presidential nominees by backing third-party segregationist George Wallace in 1968 and incumbent Republican Richard Nixon in 1972, with both candidates appealing to voters’ racial prejudices and opposition to progressive Democratic nominees. The county backed Democrat Jimmy Carter – a Southerner – in 1976 and 1980 but has since voted Republican in every presidential election, with Donald Trump garnering 63.8% of Cleveland’s vote in 2016. Trump’s margin was among the strongest of any Republican nominee in the county’s history, second only to Nixon’s landslide in 1972. However, Cleveland County was still Hillary Clinton’s best in the Foothills region – the county’s large African American population provides Democrats with a continued base of support, albeit a minority.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+8 (Lean Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+11 (Likely Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+18 (Safe Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+25 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+27 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+24 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+32 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 63.75%
Hillary Clinton – 33.50%
Richard Burr – 62.31%
Deborah Ross – 34.05%
Pat McCrory – 62.04%
Roy Cooper – 36.29%
Cleveland County has also become solidly Republican in statewide elections, but much more recently – the county voted for the Democratic nominees in six of ten statewide races in 2004 and four of ten in 2008, but supported all ten Republican nominees in 2012 and 2016. In local elections, Cleveland is still highly competitive, although a Republican trend is clear. Currently, Republicans outnumber Democrats by four to one on the county commission, and the county’s other partisan elected positions are split – the Register of Deeds, District Attorney, and Coroner (one of few elected statewide) are Republicans, while the Clerk of Superior Court and Sheriff are Democrats. However, all local elected offices other than the county commission were held by Democrats prior to 2014, indicating that Republican strength in local elections has surged in recent years.
Before 2017, the nine members of the Cleveland County Board of Education were elected on a nonpartisan ballot in odd-numbered years, with the board consisting of six registered Democrats, two registered Republicans, and one unaffiliated voter ahead of the 2017 elections. However, Republicans in the General Assembly passed a bill to make the board’s elections partisan in 2017, hoping to oust its incumbent Democrats by encouraging partisan polarization among voters. Interestingly, the effort backfired – three Democrats and one Republican were elected on the 2017 partisan ballot, leaving the board with a total of seven Democrats and two Republicans as of 2018. Remaining nonpartisan elected offices in Cleveland include its Soil and Water Conservation District Board and its Water Board, the latter of which is unique to the county. Elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors include two unaffiliated voters and one registered Democrat, while the Water Board consists of three registered Democrats, three unaffiliated voters, and one registered Republican.
Cleveland’s historical allegiance to the Democratic Party is still reflected in terms of voter registration – as of June 2018, 40% of registered voters are Democrats, while 33% are Republicans and 27% are unaffiliated. Cleveland has the highest proportion of registered Democrats of any county in the Foothills, and as of June 2018, it is one of only two Foothills counties with a Democratic plurality (the other, Alleghany, has a Democratic advantage of only thirty-eight voters). However, Democrats’ remaining voter registration advantage in Cleveland is slipping away, with the proportion of registered Democrats having decreased by 16% since 2004.
Within Cleveland County, Democrats perform best in the largely African American precincts in and around Shelby, while Republicans are strongest in the rural, predominantly white areas on the county’s periphery. Clinton, Ross, and Cooper each won three precincts in the Shelby area in 2016, with all three candidates running only slightly behind in a few other precincts surrounding Shelby. However, Democrats no longer perform well enough in the county’s small towns and rural areas to dominate countywide, with such areas now serving as the local GOP’s main source of strength. Across the county, the proportion of Democratic support now corresponds noticeably with the proportion of African American residents, indicating a high degree of racial polarization in partisan politics.
The county’s Republican trend can also be seen in its congressional and legislative representation – Cleveland is currently represented by Congressman Patrick McHenry (CD-10), state Senator Warren Daniel (SD-46), state Representative Kelly Hastings (HD-110), and state Representative Tim Moore (HD-111), all Republicans. Moore’s House district includes most of the county’s rural, predominantly white precincts, while Hastings’ House district pairs the majority-African American areas of Shelby with predominantly white precincts in the neighboring Gaston County. This arrangement dilutes the strength of Cleveland’s predominantly black Democratic base, assuring that both House districts remain safely Republican. Moore, of course, currently serves as the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, giving him considerable influence in determining the location and composition of his district.
In future years, Cleveland County will likely continue to trend Republican, with the GOP’s conservatism becoming increasingly attractive to white voters in the county’s small towns and rural areas. Cleveland’s high African American population provides Democrats with a sizeable base and more support than in any other Foothills county, but if current trends continue, Republicans can expect to maintain their newfound strength well into the future. Cleveland has already become solidly Republican in federal and statewide elections, and although Democrats are still competitive in most local races, Democratic candidates will need to remain cognizant of increased partisan polarization in the county if they wish to maintain local support.