At the outset of the modern era of North Carolina politics, the state was only 10% urban. Even that statistic overstates the degree of urbanization in early-20th-century North Carolina. The Census Bureau defined “urban” as a jurisdiction in which lived 2,600 people. By that rather modest measure, 90% of North Carolinians still lived in the countryside. The state would remain majority-rural all the way until 1990, when the urban population barely crossed the majority mark.
As a result, the North Carolina Democratic Party was largely a rural institution. Particularly in the eastern party of the state, yellow-dog Democrats formed the backbone of the party for generations. Those days are quickly receding in the rear view mirror, however. Since the 2010 political earthquake, rural North Carolina has moved far to the right, and now even eastern North Carolina is poised to support Republican Dan Forest over Rocky Mount native and Democrat Roy Cooper.
Whither North Carolina Democrats? The answer lies in the growing, sprawling suburbs that are quickly overtaking the pine forests and sandy plains that long served as the seat of small-town life in the state. North Carolina is now 70% urban and moving further in that direction as suburbs expand and nearly half the state’s counties, all rural, lose population. And it is in these bustling ‘burbs that the Democratic Party’s future lies.
Take Wake County. The quintessential New South boom-burg, the capitol county was once rock-ribbed conservative. In 2002–not ancient history–Elizabeth Dole actually overperformed her statewide margin in Wake County. As recently as 2013, Republicans controlled a majority of the county’s legislative seats. Since then, things have changed dramatically. Democrats now control all seven of the county commission seats and 15 out of 16 seats in the legislative delegation. If the 2020 election unfolds as it is expected to, Wake County will not be represented by a single Republican at the state or US House levels. Mecklenburg County has followed a similar trajectory.
Winning the inner-ring suburbs has been a prerequisite for the Democratic revival, but those jurisdictions alone cannot make a statewide majority. Fortunately, the outer suburbs are moving in the same direction. Cabarrus County, outside Charlotte, and Alamance County, bracketed by the Triad and the Triangle, have been moving steadily leftward in recent cycles. Democrats have a very good chance of picking up legislative seats in both counties, and it is only a matter of time before comparable exurban counties join them in purple territory.
Why is this happening? Partly because of diversification: the influx of immigrants and domestic transplants has changed the face of suburbia. But these regions still contain thousands of center-right voters who had previously made them bedrock conservative redoubts. It is more likely a lagged response to the transformation of the GOP. Educated voters have little sympathy for a populist party organized around slavish loyalty to a vulgar authoritarian. They have not become born-again socialists, but neither do they want to vote for a party that does little for the things they care about while offending their values and temperamental dispositions.
Suburban losses by the Republican Party have catalyzed a growing source of promise for Democrats. Exurban counties remain majority-Republican (populous Union County is a particular headache for Democrats), but demographic trends are pushing them in the direction of their denser neighbors. If Democrats are to lead North Carolina again, it will be the land of subdivisions and takeaway sushi that clinches their majority.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.