Located roughly thirty miles south of the Triangle on North Carolina’s inner Coastal Plain, Cumberland County is the fifth most populous in the state, with 329,653 residents as of July 2018. Cumberland’s county seat, Fayetteville, is the sixth largest city in North Carolina, home to over two hundred thousand residents in the western half of the county. Cumberland also contains the world’s largest military installation, Fort Bragg, which facilitates over fifty thousand active duty personnel northwest of Fayetteville. The presence of Fort Bragg has played a defining role in the county’s history, catalyzing population growth and economic output in Fayetteville as the city has sought to accommodate the installation’s military personnel and their families. Today, many military families have settled permanently in Fayetteville, as well as its surrounding suburbs – the town of Spring Lake is home to around twelve thousand residents directly northeast of Fort Bragg, while the town of Hope Mills contains over sixteen thousand residents south of Fayetteville. The eastern half of the county, meanwhile, is largely rural, with six small towns and an economy driven mainly by agriculture and manufacturing.
Despite the influence of Fort Bragg, population growth in Cumberland County has slowed in recent decades, with its growth rate having decreased every decade since peaking at 61.8% amidst World War II in the 1940s. Cumberland is expected to grow by only 0.8% from 2010 to 2020, and Fayetteville currently has the slowest growth rate of any of the state’s ten largest municipalities. Within the county, eastern Fayetteville, Fort Bragg, and Spring Lake have experienced population loss in recent years, countered by rapid growth in central and western Fayetteville, Hope Mills, and other suburbs south of the city. Shifts in local population growth are accompanied by other demographic changes – like other counties in eastern North Carolina, Cumberland is racially diverse, with a current population approximately 50% white, 40% black, and 10% Hispanic. Although black neighborhoods in Spring Lake and eastern Fayetteville have lost population in recent years, historically white neighborhoods in western Fayetteville and suburbs like Hope Mills have diversified and subsequently grown, resulting in steady increases in the county’s black and Hispanic populations. Predominantly white portions of central Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, meanwhile, have declined in population, resulting in an overall decrease in the proportion of white residents in the county.
Fayetteville is also known as the hometown of former Governor and United States Senator Terry Sanford, a staunchly liberal Democrat who championed public education and desegregation, as well as the home of Fayetteville State University, a historically black university today part of the University of North Carolina system.
Cumberland County has historically been loyal to the Democratic Party, with Democratic candidates finding support in both urban Fayetteville and the county’s rural areas. Cumberland has supported the GOP in only eight presidential elections since the Civil War, opting for the Democratic nominee in the remaining thirty presidential races. The county’s status as a Democratic stronghold was threatened in the late 1960s, when rural voters and white suburbanites alike began abandoning liberal Democratic candidates in favor of the increasingly conservative GOP. Cumberland then became more of a presidential bellwether, supporting the winner of the national popular vote – Democrat or Republican – in all but one election from 1972 to 2004. However, Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 mobilized historically marginalized African American voters and capitalized upon local demographic change, winning Cumberland by a nearly twenty-point margin. Obama’s reelection bid in 2012 and Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016 replicated the 2008 success, suggesting the county has now reassumed its position as a Democratic stronghold.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+1 (Tossup)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+4 (Tossup)
2000 Presidential PVI: D+0 (Tossup)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+1 (Tossup)
2008 Presidential PVI: D+10 (Lean Democratic)
2012 Presidential PVI: D+16 (Safe Democratic)
2016 Presidential PVI: D+14 (Likely Democratic)
Hillary Clinton – 56.16%
Donald Trump – 40.21%
Deborah Ross – 55.39%
Richard Burr – 41.22%
Roy Cooper – 55.86%
Pat McCrory – 41.83%
In statewide elections, Democratic dominance in Cumberland was never truly threatened, with the county supporting Democratic candidates for all ten statewide offices in each election cycle since at least 2004. Democrats also perform well in local elections, with a 5-2 advantage over Republicans on the county’s Board of Commissioners and an 8-1 advantage over Republicans on the county’s Board of Education. Cumberland’s elected Register of Deeds, Clerk of Superior Court, and Sheriff are also all Democrats, while the county’s three elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors consist of two Republicans and one Democrat. Democrats also have a voter registration advantage in Cumberland, as 46% of the county’s voters are Democrats, 23% are Republicans, and 31% are unaffiliated voters as of June 2018. In recent years, the proportion of voters affiliated with either party has decreased slightly as the proportion of unaffiliated voters increases, a trend noticeable statewide.
Within Cumberland County, Democrats perform best throughout the city of Fayetteville, as well as in the town of Spring Lake north of Fort Bragg. Both municipalities have highly diverse populations, with increasing proportions of African American and Hispanic voters. Within Fayetteville, however, Republicans do dominate in a small pocket of predominantly white precincts in the central portion of the city, as shown in the maps above. Republicans also perform well in the suburban areas below Fayetteville (including Hope Mills) and in Fort Bragg, although Democrats came only a few percentage points away from winning both areas in 2016. Cumberland’s main GOP strongholds are the small towns and rural precincts in the eastern half of the county, although these areas are far too sparsely populated to overwhelm the Democratic strength of Fayetteville.
In 2016, the General Assembly split Cumberland between two predominantly rural congressional districts in order to dilute the county’s Democratic vote and assure the election of two Republican members of Congress. Fort Bragg, Spring Lake, the western half of Fayetteville, and the western half of Hope Mills are currently represented by GOP Congressman Richard Hudson (CD-08), while the eastern half of Fayetteville, the eastern half of Hope Mills, and most of the county’s rural areas are currently represented by GOP Congressman Robert Pittenger (CD-09). Pittenger was defeated in the 2018 Republican primary by conservative pastor Mark Harris, who will face a tough challenge from Democratic veteran and business owner Dan McCready in November.
In 2010, the General Assembly drew Cumberland’s legislative districts with similarly partisan intentions. In the NC Senate, the county is currently represented by Democrat Ben Clark (SD-21) and Republican Wesley Meredith (SD-19). Clark’s district begins in the majority-minority Hoke County and extends hundreds of jumbled tentacles into urban areas of Cumberland, separating black residents from their white neighbors in order to consolidate as much of the county’s Democratic vote as possible. Meredith’s district soaks up the remaining portions of the county, just white enough to assure a stable Republican lean. Court-enforced redistricting ahead of the 2018 elections has greatly simplified the two districts, however, with Meredith’s now at considerable risk of joining Clark’s in the Democratic column.
In the NC House, Cumberland has four representatives – Democrats Marvin Lucas (HD-42), Elmer Floyd (HD-43), and Billy Richardson (HD-44), and Republican John Szoka (HD-45). The districts represented by Lucas and Floyd are both majority black and heavily Democratic, with the former stretching from Spring Lake to western Fayetteville and the latter consuming eastern Fayetteville. The districts represented by Richardson and Szoka, meanwhile, are both predominantly white and were drawn to favor Republicans – the former joins the affluent precincts of central Fayetteville with the suburbs below the city, while the latter stretches from Hope Mills to Fort Bragg, consuming most of the county’s rural areas in the process. Redistricting ahead of the 2018 elections has simplified the four districts’ boundaries but maintains their general partisan leanings, perhaps making Richardson’s reelection bid somewhat less difficult.
In future years, Cumberland’s status as a Democratic stronghold will likely solidify, with local demographic change suggesting minority groups in the county will continue to develop greater political influence. Increased voter turnout among African American and Hispanic voters may also compensate for the county’s stubbornly low voter turnout – Cumberland had the fifth lowest voter turnout of any North Carolina county in 2016, largely due to the impermanency of its military population. The GOP will likely struggle to regain the relative strength it enjoyed in Cumberland during the late twentieth century, and if current trends continue, the county may soon become one of the most Democratic in the state.