By: Mac McCorkle and Rachel Salzberg

The 2022 election year looks to be a challenging one for North Carolina Democrats. A major part of that challenge stems from what we call their “Countrypolitan” problem.

Extremely gerrymandered Republican maps could put Democratic candidates at a significant disadvantage in congressional and state legislative races. But here we focus on the formidable climb that Democrats face in statewide races this year and perhaps into the foreseeable future. 

In 2020 the victory of Donald Trump and most other GOP statewide candidates proved that a dependable Democratic majority had still not emerged in North Carolina. Democratic presidential candidates have now lost NC in 10 out of the last 11 elections. Moreover, Democratic candidates have won only one US Senate race in the last 20 years and two in the last 30. 

With Terry McAuliffe’s 2021 gubernatorial loss in the previously safe blue state of Virginia, a negative regional and national trend may also be developing against Democrats.

So it is high time for North Carolina Democrats to confront their underdog status in statewide, especially federal, races. They need to reject any complacent belief that their “2U” base of Urban areas and University towns will guarantee victory. As Georgia’s Stacey Abrams emphasizes, Democrats should aggressively compete “from the rural towns to the big cities.”

And based on our analysis of the 2020 presidential election in North Carolina, we see the 28 hybrid “Country-politan” counties across the state as needing special attention from Democrats. 

We define NC’s Countrypolitan counties as the outlying ones in larger “metropolitan statistical areas.” These outlying counties qualify as metropolitan according to the federal Office of Management and Budget due to significant job-commuting ties with big-city counties. Yet these hybrid counties have influential mixes of rural and small-town legacies.

Countrypolitan counties stretch across a broad economic range. They include growth dynamos like Johnston in the Raleigh metro and Union in the Charlotte metro. At the other end of the spectrum are struggling counties like Rockingham in the Greensboro metro. 

But almost all Countrypolitan counties were heavily red in 2020. Although largely next door to the state’s bigger-city Democratic bastions, Countrypolitan counties constituted a stronger base of Trump support than the state’s 50 counties outside of North Carolina’s metropolitan regions. Biden had more of a Countrypolitan than a rural and small-town problem. 

In Countrypolitan counties, Trump beat Biden by 27 points (63-36%) while amassing 934,667 voters. In comparison, Trump won the state’s non-metro counties by just under 22 points (61-38.5%) while garnering 616,000 votes. And in a high-turnout year statewide, the Countrypolitan share of the vote inched upward one point to 26.8% from 2016 while the non-metro share ticked downward by about a point to 18.4%.

Trump’s Countrypolitan strength neutralized and even overwhelmed Biden’s big- city leads in major metro areas. Biden rolled out of Mecklenburg County with a 35-point lead due to his supermajority strength in Charlotte. But he won the whole Charlotte metro by only 3.6 points. The Countrypolitan counterweight led to an even smaller Biden win in the Greensboro metro along with losses in the Winston-Salem and Asheville metros. 

Without the Countrypolitan vote, Biden would have won the state by a 53 to 45% margin thanks to his strong majorities in bigger-city counties.

The distinctive political element in most Countrypolitan counties is their overall whiteness. The White population reaches above 70% in 17 Countrypolitan counties. As a team of Brookings Institution analysts have pointed out, NC’s 50 non-metro counties exhibit more of a “substantial [racial] diversity” primarily due to concentrated Black populations in the east.

The lack of Countrypolitan diversity may preclude Democratic flipping of these red counties anytime soon. But losing by more respectable margins is an essential step. 

In 2020 the more rapidly urbanizing and diversifying Cabarrus County represented a crack in the Charlotte metro’s red Countrypolitan wall. Trump’s 9-point margin there represented an 11-point shrinkage from 2016. 

But to “lose less” in more strongly red Countrypolitan counties, Democrats need to strengthen their pockets of support in local outposts. Such blue-ish outposts have or recently had mayors who are registered Democrats or Democratic city council majorities or both.  

Take, for example, Union and Gaston counties in the Charlotte metro area. 

Union’s county seat of Monroe is the ancestral home of Jesse Helms. As of 2020 however a registered Democrat was mayor and had been in office for 16 years. On the city council was a biracial collection of registered Democrats and Independents. (In 2021 the Independent mayor pro-tem won the open seat race for mayor and three Republicans won city council seats.)

The county seat in Gaston (Gastonia) continues to have a Democratic mayor and city council majority.

Other Countrypolitan examples with some local Democratic strength include the county seats of Hendersonville and Roxboro plus the town of Reidsville. In other strongly red counties across the state, local Democratic pockets can be found in such towns as BurlingtonMorgantonNew Bern, GoldsboroSanfordBeaufort, and Albemarle.

 A deep focus on such local outposts in Countrypolitan and other counties would heed Rev. William Barber’s warning against Democrats betting “their political fortunes” on simply “increasing turnout in reliably blue districts.” To have any hope of developing a dependable statewide majority, Democrats need more voters from across the whole state that they are running to represent

Mac McCorkle is a professor of the practice at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He is a former Democratic political consultant.

Rachel Salzberg is a 2020 graduate of the master’s program at the Sanford School. She is a data associate with the Made to Save campaign.

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