Columbus County is a predominantly rural county on North Carolina’s southeastern Coastal Plain. The third largest county in the state by land area, Columbus borders South Carolina and is located only eight miles away from the Atlantic coast. The county’s geography largely defines its current patterns of growth – the southern and northeastern portions of the county, situated near the Atlantic coast and the Myrtle Beach and Wilmington metropolitan areas, are experiencing substantial growth as they welcome new industry and incoming retirees, while the central and northwestern portions of the county are experiencing population loss. Columbus’s total population – 56,904 residents as of mid-2018 – is expected to decrease by around 2% from 2010 to 2020, despite having increased by 6% from 2000 to 2010. This decline comes primarily as the county’s agricultural and manufacturing-based economy has struggled in recent decades, with stagnation in some portions of the county outmatching industrial and residential growth in others.
Columbus contains two relatively small cities – the county seat of Whiteville is home to around five thousand residents in the central portion of the county, while the quickly-growing Tabor City is home to around four thousand residents on the county’s southwestern border. The two cities illustrate contrasts in the county’s growth patterns, as population growth in the centrally-located Whiteville is stagnant while Tabor City is experiencing rapid growth (largely due to the city’s proximity to Myrtle Beach). Columbus also contains eight smaller towns, all of which have less than two thousand residents. One of the towns, Lake Waccamaw, is home to North Carolina’s largest natural lake, which was itself named for the Waccamaw Siouan tribe native to the area. Other natural features in the county include Lake Tabor and the Green Swamp, which is home to the Venus flytrap species of carnivorous plants exclusive to the region.
Like much of eastern North Carolina, Columbus County has a strong Democratic tradition, having voted for the Democratic nominee in all but four presidential elections from 1876 to 2000. The county is particularly notable as a stronghold of the brand of socially conservative, economically populist Democrats that once dominated much of the South, known initially as Dixiecrats and today as Blue Dogs. However, recent decades have seen this brand of Democrat become increasingly rare as white, rural voters abandon their Democratic roots in favor of the increasingly conservative Republican Party, and Columbus is a prime example – the county ended its loyalty to Democrats in presidential elections by supporting George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004, and it has supported the GOP nominee in every presidential election since. Donald Trump’s socially conservative, economically populist message has perhaps resonated more in Columbus County than any other in North Carolina, as the county gave an unmatched 61% of its support to Trump in the 2016 Republican primary. Trump’s performance in the general election was similarly impressive, winning Columbus by the second-largest margin of any Republican nominee in the county’s history (only Richard Nixon performed better in his 1972 landslide).
1992 Presidential PVI: D+26 (Safe Democratic)
1996 Presidential PVI: D+10 (Likely Democratic)
2000 Presidential PVI: D+8 (Likely Democratic)
2004 Presidential PVI: D+0 (Tossup)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+15 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+12 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+24 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 60.14%
Hillary Clinton – 38.19%
Richard Burr – 58.71%
Deborah Ross – 38.06%
Pat McCrory – 58.80%
Roy Cooper – 39.87%
Columbus County has also shifted significantly toward the GOP in statewide elections, although much more recently. The county supported Democrats in all ten statewide contests in 2004 and 2008 and nine of the ten in 2012, when it supported Pat McCrory in the polarizing gubernatorial election but the Democratic nominee in every other race. However, 2016 saw Columbus vote Republican in nine of the ten statewide races, and the one Democratic nominee who did win the county (Elaine Marshall) led her Republican opponent by only eleven votes. Columbus’s Republican trend is also clear in its congressional and legislative representation – the county was represented by a Democrat in Congress until 2014 and in both chambers of the General Assembly until 2016, but the GOP has since picked up all three offices. Currently, Columbus is represented by Congressman David Rouzer (CD-07), state Senator Danny Earl Britt (SD-13), and state Representative Brendan Jones (HD-46), all Republicans.
Columbus County’s Democratic tradition, however, is still strong in local elections. All seven members of the county’s Board of Commissioners, the Register of Deeds, the Clerk of Superior Court, and the Sheriff are Democrats, as are all members of the county’s Board of Education and Whiteville’s municipal Board of Education. Among the county’s elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, meanwhile, are two registered Democrats and one unaffiliated voter. This leaves Columbus as one of only eight counties in North Carolina with no Republican county elected officeholders, demonstrating its enduring loyalty to the Democratic Party on the local level. Democrats have also maintained an advantage in terms of voter registration – as of June 2018, 56% of registered voters in the county are Democrats, while 19% are Republicans and 25% are unaffiliated voters. However, the difference in voter registration between Democrats and Republicans has decreased by twenty points since 2004, indicating the county’s remaining Democratic strength may soon dissipate.
Within Columbus, Democrats perform best in the northwestern, central, and northeastern portions of the county, each of which are home to sizeable African American populations loyal to Democratic candidates (around one-third of the county’s population is African American overall). Moreover, the northern portions of the county are less affected by new industry and incoming retirees, meaning most residents are longtime locals still connected to the county’s Democratic roots. The southern portions of the county, meanwhile, are much more Republican, with fewer African American residents and an electorate defined by newer residents disconnected from the county’s Democratic roots. In 2016, many of the traditionally Democratic precincts in the northern half of the county flipped to join the county’s southern precincts in voting Republican, leaving Clinton, Ross, and Cooper each with only five precincts on Election Day. Clinton, Ross, and Cooper each won one of the two small, centrally-located precincts containing Whiteville, while the southwestern precinct containing Tabor City voted Republican by a relatively small margin in all three races.
Columbus County has experienced a sudden and significant shift toward the Republican Party in recent decades, with the GOP now dominating in federal and statewide contests despite the county’s strong Democratic roots. Although future years will likely see Democrats continue to perform well in local races, days of outright Democratic dominance in Columbus are long gone, with white, rural voters having abandoned the party of their forefathers in favor of the right-wing populism of Trump’s GOP. Democrats may be able to remain competitive in Columbus through high African American turnout and centrist messaging, but as things stand, the county’s future appears to be a bright shade of red.