Buncombe County was one of the brightest spots for Democrats on Election Night, not just in North Carolina, but nationwide. In a year where few incumbent GOP legislators were defeated, Buncombe ousted both of its Republicans in the NC House delegation. In addition, Kay Hagan nearly replicated her 2008 margin of victory there, an impressive feat; had she held up as well in the rest of the state, she would have won reelection by a comfortable margin.
Clearly, Buncombe continues its march to the left, driven mostly by the influx of left-leaning transplants, especially to the city of Asheville, dubbed “a cesspool of sin” by former state Senator Jim Forrester. Beyond that, what happened in Buncombe this year? Some say the “Mountain Moral Monday” movement helped, but there’s no way to know for sure. So let’s make an educated guess based off electoral geography.
Below are maps, depicting the Obama/Romney presidential results in Buncombe, and two years later, the Hagan/Tillis results. The 2008 election between McCain and Obama was thrown in for good measure.
The Moderate Suburbanites
As you can see, Hagan improved on Obama’s numbers pretty much everywhere. In only two precincts did do worse. What’s the cause? Three words: white, suburban moderates. This group is critical to winning statewide and they’re pretty influential in Buncombe. Unfortunately for the GOP, the liberals in Asheville are so numerous that Buncombe is pretty much out of reach for them even in a perfect GOP year. Depending on how Republicans do with these moderate suburbanites, they’ll either lose the county by a couple points or by 20 points. In other words, Buncombe is not a swing county anymore, but has an elastic voting populace.
Tillis performed at pretty much John McCain levels with these moderate suburbanites (modsubs?). The reason Tillis won the state while McCain lost is that the Hagan campaign fell a tad short when it came to turning out Obama coalition voters, especially college students. In 2008, Republicans underperformed with suburbanites because they freaked out about the economic collapse. In 2014, Tillis underperformed because these same voters were leery with the moves of the General Assembly, especially on education.
NC House Races in Buncombe
Hagan carried 2 of 3 NC House districts based in Buncombe. Despite the Democratic rout in the county, Tillis carried the 116th by a couple points. Thus, freshman Democratic Rep. Brian Turner is one of a handful of Democrats representing a district won by Romney and Tillis and therefore might be vulnerable in 2016 if he votes like a liberal. Moffitt lost because his personal favorability was too low. Ramsey lost because he represents a moderate district that were upset with the legislature and took it out on him.
Republicans may have gotten too greedy with the 2011 redistricting, at least in Buncombe County. Instead of drawing two GOP-leaning seats, they could have drawn one super-safe Republican seat which would have inoculated them from any substantial demographic changes over the decade. But in the end, GOP mapmakers probably made the right choice, conceding one Asheville-based seat and giving them the chance to take two seats in a good year for them. Ager and especially Turner will be vulnerable in 2016.
Here is the partisan breakdown of Buncombe County residents who registered after November 6th, 2012:
9,341 Unaffiliated (49%)
5,987 Democrats (31%)
3,618 Republicans (19%)
308 Libertarians (2%)
We don’t know who these unaffiliated voters are, but because of sorting, in urban counties like Buncombe they’re more likely to be sympathetic to the Democratic Party. If we leave out unaffiliated voters and registered Libertarians, the party breakdown of new voters to Buncombe is 62-38 in favor of Democrats, a probable indication the county is trending to the left. This is despite 87% of the new registrants being white.
Of the new voters, only a quarter were actually born in North Carolina. Another 19% were born elsewhere in the South (excluding Florida, the birthplace of 6% of the new voters). Another 6% were born in New York and 4% were born in some other country. The remaining 46% were born in some other state outside the South. (Incidentally, there were 36 new black Republicans, with one of them being born in another country.) Note: Just because these people were newly registered to vote doesn’t mean they actually voted, of course. Still, it’s likely Democrats had a good night in Buncombe at least in part because they did a better job registering voters – either because they were more organized or because the newly registered were naturally more sympathetic to the Democratic Party.
Who Actually Voted?
The 2014 electorate in Buncombe County was like this (numbers in parentheses means change since 2012):
91% White (+2)
5% Black (-1)
4% Other (-1)
45% Democratic (+1)
28% Unaffiliated (-1)
27% Republican (no change)
Despite a whiter electorate, Democrats were a larger composition of the electorate than in 2012. Did Democrats have a really good turnout operation, did Republicans have a lousy one, both, or was there a “transplant effect” making the electorate naturally more liberal? We don’t know the answer to that question, yet.
The White Vote
There was definitely a shift with white voters, though. Assigning “other” votes to Hagan by a 67-33 margin and blacks to her by 97-3 (based on the exit polls), I estimate that Tillis received about 43% of the white vote in Buncombe County. This is as a percentage of the two-party vote, meaning his actual total with whites was even lower. Compare that with Mitt Romney’s result with this group – 47%.
That makes Buncombe very liberal not only by NC standards, but by national standards as well. Other counties where Hagan probably won the white vote: Chatham, Orange, Durham, and Jackson. (Whites in Chatham and Jackson went for Romney in 2012.) Hagan’s stronger appeal with whites was not limited to just Buncombe; this was a statewide phenomenon. In rural areas, it was because she did much better with traditional working-class Democrats who voted for Romney. In urban areas, she won Romney voters for a different reason, namely backlash against the General Assembly. Both played a role in Hagan’s larger margin with whites.
Bottom line: Democrats had a good night in Buncombe County because of an energized Democratic base (spurred in part by the Moral Monday movement), an influx of new liberal-leaning residents, and by doing better with white voters who supported Mitt Romney in 2012. While once again having a majority of the legislative delegation is by no means out of the question, the county as a whole is probably lost to Republicans going forward. In the future, a good GOP performance in Buncombe is keeping the race within single digits, a result that would be promising for any Republican candidate running statewide.
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.