Dare County is the easternmost in North Carolina, defined by three distinct coastal regions – its mainland peninsula, Roanoke Island, and the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. The county’s mainland peninsula, bounded by the Alligator River to the west, the Albemarle Sound to the north, and the Pamlico Sound to the east, is largely rural, home to only a few hundred residents and consisting mostly of coastal wildlife refuges and game land. Roanoke Island, separated from the mainland by the Croatan Sound and from the barrier islands by the Roanoke Sound, contains the county seat of Manteo and a few thousand residents, as well as the former site of the forsaken Lost Colony attempt of the 1580s to establish an English settlement in the Americas. The first child born in the colony, Virginia Dare, is the county’s namesake. Dare’s portion of the Outer Banks, meanwhile, consists of two barrier islands – Bodie Island to the north and Hatteras Island to the south, each home to one of the state’s seven active lighthouses. A solid majority of the county’s residents live in the five incorporated towns of Bodie Island, which, from north to south, are Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head. Kill Devil Hills is the county’s largest town and the site of the Wright brothers’ famous 1903 flight, while Nags Head is the easternmost municipality in North Carolina and the home of the largest sand dunes in the eastern United States.
Recent decades have seen Dare County’s population skyrocket, increasing from under 6,000 permanent residents in 1960 to approximately 37,172 as of July 2018 as retirees and the wealthy seek upscale beach homes on the Outer Banks. The county’s population of yearlong residents is expected to increase by an additional 10.5% from 2010 to 2020, a substantial rate but somewhat lower than past decades due to the impact of the Great Recession. Today, over 90% of the county’s predominantly affluent, retired yearlong residents are white, and a solid majority hail from outside of North Carolina. The vast majority of Dare’s residents, however, are seasonal beachgoers who occupy the thousands of local vacation rentals every summer – the county’s population surges to over 250,000 during the summer vacation months, and 44% of local housing units are seasonal, the highest proportion statewide. It comes as no surprise, then, that Dare collects the fourth-largest amount of annual tourism revenue of any North Carolina county, with vacationers attracted to the county’s unparalleled eighty-five miles of coastline and ample opportunities for water recreation. Indeed, an unmatched 75% of the county’s total area is water, making Dare the largest county in North Carolina by total area but only the sixty-eighth largest by landmass.
After the Civil War, both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were competitive in Dare County until 1898, when a violent statewide campaign of white supremacism led to a constitutional amendment that disenfranchised the county’s then-sizeable African American population and limited voting to its overwhelmingly Democratic white residents. Dare supported the Democratic nominee in every subsequent presidential election until 1956, when the county became one of the first in eastern North Carolina to flip back to the GOP by supporting Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reelection bid. This shift came largely as affluent nonlocals began moving to the Outer Banks and brought their political leanings with them, overpowering the Democratic loyalty of the county’s longtime residents. Dare wavered between the two parties throughout the subsequent decades and last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee by backing Jimmy Carter in 1976, having supported the GOP in every presidential election since. The county’s Republican trend was catalyzed by the continued influx of older, upscale whites to the Outer Banks, as well as the decision of most of the county’s longtime residents to abandon the increasingly liberal Democratic Party in favor of more conservative GOP candidates.
Dare County’s conservative inclinations, however, are of a somewhat lesser magnitude than those of most other coastal North Carolina counties. The county’s residents are predominantly affluent, well-educated, and not native to rural North Carolina, resulting in a political base supportive of fiscally conservative but surprisingly socially moderate policies. Dare was one of only eight counties in North Carolina to vote against the state’s 2012 same-sex marriage ban, and out of all counties in eastern North Carolina with a population at least 80% white, Dare was Hillary Clinton’s best in 2016. Moreover, then-Governor Pat McCrory performed substantially worse than other GOP candidates in Dare in 2016, suggesting the county’s voters may have particularly cautious of House Bill 2. However, even though white voters in Dare County are less conservative than one might expect, they are still supportive of the GOP overall, and as the county has such a low proportion of African American residents, the Republican Party can consider Dare to be a consistent backer in most elections.
1992 Presidential PVI: R+10 (Lean Republican)
1996 Presidential PVI: R+13 (Likely Republican)
2000 Presidential PVI: R+14 (Likely Republican)
2004 Presidential PVI: R+18 (Safe Republican)
2008 Presidential PVI: R+17 (Safe Republican)
2012 Presidential PVI: R+20 (Safe Republican)
2016 Presidential PVI: R+24 (Safe Republican)
Donald Trump – 58.44%
Hillary Clinton – 36.83%
Richard Burr – 59.31%
Deborah Ross – 37.62%
Pat McCrory – 55.44%
Roy Cooper – 41.89%
Dare County has also become solidly Republican in statewide elections, although much more recently. Democrats won the county in four of ten statewide contest in 2004 and eight of ten in 2008, but the GOP carried the county in every contested race in 2012 and 2016. On the local level, meanwhile, Dare’s Republican trend seems to have just recently crested – the GOP took control of the county’s Board of Commissioners in 2014 and currently have a 6-1 advantage over Democrats, with Republicans also serving as Clerk of Superior Court and Sheriff. Democrats, meanwhile, still have a 3-2-2 advantage over Republicans and unaffiliated voters on the county’s Board of Education and a 2-1 advantage over the GOP among the county’s elected Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, with a Democrat also serving as the Register of Deeds.
Dare’s congressional and legislative representation also suggest a decisive Republican lean, as the county is currently represented by Congressman Walter Jones (CD-03), state Senator Bill Cook (SD-01), and state Representative Beverly Boswell (HD-06), all Republicans. Until 2011, SD-01 was represented by Democrat Marc Basnight, a Dare County native who served as the state Senate’s president pro tempore. Although redistricting ahead of the 2018 elections did not affect Dare’s placement in SD-01 and HD-06, both elections are now open – Bob Steinburg (R) and D. Cole Phelps (D) are competing to replace Cook in the state Senate, while Bobby Hanig (R) defeated Boswell in the GOP primary for state House and will face off against Tess Judge (D) in November. The SD-01 race is expected to be competitive, while the GOP has a considerable advantage in HD-06.
Within Dare, Republicans perform best throughout the county’s rural mainland precincts, where GOP candidates can regularly expect to receive over 80% of the vote. The Outer Banks precincts, meanwhile, are more competitive – although they generally support Republican candidates, Democrats have performed well, particularly among the area’s predominantly affluent, well-educated voters. On Election Day in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Outer Banks precinct containing the town of Duck, while Roy Cooper tied with Pat McCrory in Duck and won the precinct containing the town of Nags Head.
Although one may expect a typically Republican county like Dare to have a GOP advantage in voter registration, a plurality of the county’s voters are actually unaffiliated with either major party – as of June 2018, 39% of registered voters in Dare are unaffiliated, while 31% are Republicans and 30% are Democrats. This is largely due to the predominance of affluent, well-educated retirees in the county, many of whom choose to identify with neither major party despite their loyalty to Republican candidates. Moreover, as so many of the county’s residents hail from out-of-state, many refrain from associating with North Carolina political parties largely focused on state and local issues. Unaffiliated voters became the largest group in Dare in May 2014, while registered Republicans overtook registered Democrats in June 2017.
In future years, Dare County may continue to trend Republican, with the GOP maintaining their dominance in federal and statewide races and making further gains on the local level. This comes largely as the Outer Banks continue to see an influx of upscale, older white voters who tend to support Republican candidates, particularly in such an increasingly polarized political environment. Although remaining Democratic strength in the county’s local elections does seem to be fading, however, some promising signs for Democrats persist – Dare’s socially moderate brand may eventually turn against increasingly abrasive Republican candidates, and the county’s affluent, well-educated swing voters may become more inclined to support Democrats given the recent actions of President Trump and the General Assembly. Dare is one of few counties in North Carolina where long-term political trends are difficult to discern, although this in itself is unsurprising given its unique brand of voter.