Lenoir County is located in eastern North Carolina. The county seat is Kinston. It was founded in 1791, formed from now-defunct Dobbs County, and named after William Lenoir (1751 – 1839), a Revolutionary War officer and later, State Senator. As of 2010, the county’s population was 59,495 individuals.
Besides the city of Kinston, the county is overwhelmingly rural and reliant on agriculture, but Lenoir County began to emerge as a manufacturing center in the mid-twentieth century. Efforts to revitalize the economy of eastern North Carolina brought about the establishment of the Global TransPark (GTP), which was designed to emulate the success of RTP in the central part of the state. So far, the effort has only met with limited success. The county remains poor and as a result it was one of the few counties to see a net loss in population in the 2010 U.S. census.
As of 2010, the racial statistics in Lenoir County were as follows: Whites were 53% of the population; African Americans were almost 41%; Hispanics almost 7%. The county’s voting patterns are racially polarized. African Americans vote nearly unanimously for Democratic candidates, up and down the ballot. In contrast, 85% of white voters opted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Lenoir County is Democratic at the state and local level, but tends to vote Republican in federal elections. This is due to the overwhelming allegiance of White voters to the national Republican Party and conservatism in general. In fact, Lenoir County has not voted for a Democratic candidate for President since 1964, when it went for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater. George Wallace carried the county in 1968, and Nixon won it easily in 1972. In 1976, even though Democrat Jimmy Carter was a Southerner, Lenoir County opted for his Republican opponent, Gerald Ford, indicating that even back then, whites were becoming solidly Republican at the presidential level, in numbers atypical for eastern North Carolina at the time.
Since then, Lenoir County has opted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election. However, the 2008 and 2012 elections saw Republicans carry the county only by a meager margin, this was due to much higher turnout among African Americans because of excitement over Barack Obama’s candidacy. In 2008, John McCain won Lenoir County by only 0.08%. In 2012, Mitt Romney did only slightly better, carrying it by 0.12%. On both occasions it was won with less than a majority.
Lenoir County is divided into three congressional districts: the first, the third, and the seventh. The first is represented by G.K. Butterfield, Democrat. The third is Republican Walter B. Jones’ district. The seventh is currently represented by Democrat Mike McIntyre.
1988: R+9 (Leans Republican)
1992: R+6 (Leans Republican)
1996: R+13 (Strong Republican)
2000: R+10 (Leans Republican)
2004: R+9 (Leans Republican)
2008: R+7 (Leans Republican)
2012: R+4 (Toss-Up)
Forecast: Lenoir County is a bellwether county in NC politics, even though it is demographically unrepresentative of the rest of the state. The county is also inelastic, due to the racial polarization in voting patterns. With Barack Obama off the ballot in 2016, African American turnout is likely to go down, which could make Lenoir County an easier win who Republicans that year. At the same time, the Democratic nominee is likely to have more appeal among White voters. This probably ensures that the county will be close again in 2016.
However, demographic trends are on the side of the Democrats here. It is not just the Hispanic population, which doubled from 2000 to 2010. In fact, voter registration among Hispanics in this county is severely low. If these voters were registered and turned out, then Lenoir County would almost certainly slip into the Democratic column, permanently. Even without Hispanics, Whites are leaving the county in absolute numbers, and are especially moving away from Kinston, the county seat. If Lenoir County is not a majority-minority county by 2020, it will be very close to being so.
Lenoir County is one of a number of counties in eastern North Carolina where the White population is declining at a much quicker pace than the rest of the state. Other counties in this category are Nash, Wilson, and Edgecombe. These demographic trends probably ensure that these counties will be permanently in the Democratic column by 2020 or so. Lack of population growth is a mitigating factor. Lenoir County is projected to once again lose population in the 2020 census.