An op-ed in today’s News & Observer used the shift of County Commissioner seats from Democrat to Republican to conclude that North Carolina is not a purple, or swing state, but one that is trending red. This conclusion is flawed but the data does highlight the complexity of North Carolina’s political landscape.
What the authors, professors Christopher Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts, miss is the shift in population from rural counties to urban ones. In 2012, Obama won the seven largest counties in the state and 37% of the population lives in one of those counties. In addition, three of those seven, Wake, Mecklenburg and Durham, are also the fastest growing.
In contrast, the counties where Republicans are winning are also shrinking. Forty-seven of the state’s 100 counties lost population during the past decade. Most these rural counties are becoming older and more conservative but their residents are dying and their young people are leaving. In addition, most counties elect commissioners from districts and the 2011 redistricting gave Republicans a number commission seats, and in the case of Guilford, an entire county.
A better way to judge the direction of the state is to look at individual voting trends and demographic shifts. In 2012, 51% of the votes cast for Congress were for Democrats, even though the delegation is 9-4 Republican. Similarly, Democrats received almost half the legislative votes in the state, though Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both houses of legislature.
The state is also becoming browner and unless Republicans change their policies, they will suffer at the ballot box over the next decade. Hispanics made up less than 1% of the population in the 1990 census but made up about 8% in the 2010. African-Americans, who made up 18% or so of the electorate from 1990 to 2006, made up over 22% of the voters in 2008 and 2012. Within the next ten years or so, minorities, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, will make up close to 30% of the electorate.
Republicans may be able to control an increasing number of rural counties but they will influence a decreasing percentage of the population. Redistricting may give the GOP a few more commissioner seats in urban areas and may even protect majorities in the legislature, but the state as a whole will continue to trend blue. Republican control in North Carolina depends upon political maneuvers like redistricting and voter suppression tactics, not majority rule.