Located on North Carolina’s southeastern coast, New Hanover County contains the city of Wilmington, once the largest in the
state and the county seat. Over 200,000 people live in New Hanover, making it an important urban county. The county is also the site of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Unlike most urban counties, however, New Hanover has a Republican lean. New Hanover is also important because it is North Carolina’s premier bellwether county. As New Hanover goes, so goes North Carolina.
New Hanover’s bellwether status is aptly described by Nate Silver of the New York Times:
Wilmington’s New Hanover County, on the southeast coast, has been an almost exact barometer of the statewide vote in North Carolina for the past three presidential elections. While it is a bit less diverse than North Carolina as a whole, New Hanover County is home to well-educated voters associated with the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and it has a fast-growing (PDF) Hispanic community.
Its economy has a bit of both old and new North Carolina, revolving around tourists flocking to the beach, as well as manufacturing and cotton and tobacco farming in the rural areas, Mr. Heberlig said.
One word of warning, though: New Hanover County has been slowly trending Republican, Mr. Guillory said, and its accuracy as a statewide bellwether may not hold up this year.
As it turns out, New Hanover’s bellwether status remained intact through the 2012 presidential election. Romney carried New Hanover by 5 points and North Carolina by 2 points.
New Hanover also has historical significance. Wilmington was the site of the nation’s only coup d’état. In 1898 the city’s white minority wrested power from the black majority, known as the Wilmington Insurrection or the Wilmington Race Riot. The insurrection was the catalyst for the Democrats’ rise to power in 1898, a reign that finally came to an end in 2010.
1988: R+14 (Strong Republican)
1992: R+14 (Strong Republican)
1996: R+17 (Solid Republican)
2000: R+11 (Strong Republican)
2004: R+9 (Leans Republican)
2008: R+9 (Leans Republican)
2012: R+8 (Leans Republican)
Forecast: New Hanover is the site of two countervailing trends. Like most of the state’s larger cities, Wilmington has seen an influx of urban white liberals, making the city more Democratic. At the same time, affluent retirees, who tend to vote Republican, are settling along the beaches. The result? New Hanover County is trending, ever so slightly, to the Democratic Party, though it would probably be more accurate to say that there is no trend at all.
The growth rate during the 2000s was a healthy 26.42%. Most of this growth came from white voters, but white transplants are divided between rich retirees and cosmopolitan liberals from the Northeast. If current trends continue, New Hanover will experience a 15% growth rate by the 2020 census.
Thus, while experiencing rapid growth, New Hanover has not trended Democratic as rapidly as other urban counties because of the coastal retiree effect, which is obviously not present in other urban counties such as Wake and Mecklenburg.
In a neutral year, New Hanover should be a fairly comfortable win for any Republican candidate. Mitt Romney won here in 2012, and even John McCain carried it in 2008. So carrying New Hanover is essential for any Republican who hopes to win statewide.
The most prominent politician in New Hanover currently is State Senator Thom Goolsby, whose district is all of the county save one precinct. Goolsby has been sharply critical of the Moral Monday movement and is a controversial figure among liberals. For Democrats to take back the Senate, they will almost certainly have to defeat Goolsby. Should Goolsby be reelected, then a run for statewide office is probably in the cards.
It is possible that the state as a whole will trend Democratic faster than the county will, in which case New Hanover will lose its bellwether status to some other county. For now though, New Hanover remains pivotal.