Columbus County is located in southeastern North Carolina, along the South Carolina border. Its county seat is Whiteville.
The county is home to Lake Waccamaw, the largest natural lake in the state. The lake was named after the Waccamaw Indian tribe, which continues to live in this area. The economy is based around the agricultural and manufacturing industries, both of which have been hard hit in recent years.
Politically, Columbus County can be described as Dixiecrat. Southern Democrats dominate the county. They are economically populist, but have strong conservative views on both social and racial issues. In years past, it was a Democratic stronghold, but in recent years Columbus has tended to vote Republican in presidential races. President Obama severely underperformed in Columbus County, probably because of attrition of conservative white Democrats. Richard Burr carried Columbus in 2010, so there is some evidence that whites here are increasingly becoming more Republican downballot as well.
Both Barack Obama and Walter Dalton failed to carry Columbus in 2012, but Dalton came closer due to greater acceptance among white voters.
1988: D+23 (Solid Democratic)
1992: D+26 (Solid Democratic)
1996: D+10 (Leans Democratic)
2000: D+9 (Leans Democratic)
2004: D+1 (Toss-Up)
2008: R+15 (Solid Republican)
2012: R+12 (Leans Republican)
Forecast: The change in PVI above is striking. In 1988, Columbus residents voted Democratic up and down the ballot, and were more than willing to vote for card-carrying ACLU member Michael Dukakis. Bill Clinton was an even better fit for the county, and he won here by a landslide.
Clinton’s showing in 1996 was much poorer. Not only was he perceived as being anti-tobacco, he was also blamed for job losses in the manufacturing industry. Gore won here in 2000. But Columbus opted for George W. Bush in 2004. Before that, the last time Columbus went Republican was for Reagan in 1984.
The year 2008 saw the first time that Columbus was more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole. And the shift was huge, from 1 point to the left to 15 points to the right. John McCain did even better here than George W. Bush did. There are two explanations for this huge shift relative to other counties in the state. First, it is possible that whites in Columbus were even more anti-Obama than the surrounding counties, though the reason why this would be is unknown. It’s also possible that, for whatever reason, the Obama ground game was weaker here, resulting in lower black turnout than there should have been. In any case, Columbus trended slightly more Democratic in 2012, owing to higher black turnout.
The county grew at a 6.12% pace during the 2000s, which is not impressive. A population loss is expected this decade. The county is demographically stable.
In the future, Columbus is not expected to change much, but it’s worth noting that Obama’s showing here is probably a worst-case scenario for Democrats. The Democratic nominee in 2016 will probably do better, and if Hillary Clinton is the nominee she should be favored. But Columbus County’s ideal Democrat is someone like Mike McIntyre, who won here in a landslide in 2012.