Political observers frequently describe North Carolina’s political leanings in terms of a rural-urban divide. The metro regions break heavily for Democrats, the rural areas side with Republicans. That split makes North Carolina a key swing state in statewide and national races.

But a new analysis from Duke University — written by Duke professor Mac McCorkle and Sanford Master’s Program graduate Rachel Salzberg — reveals a more complicated political reality. Rather than an urban-rural divide, a crucial driver of statewide election results is what researchers call the state’s “countrypolitan” reality. And that reality is bad news for Democrats hoping to turn the state blue in the near future.

The reason is, the state’s 28 countrypolitan counties have solidly broken for Republicans in recent election cycles. In 2020, for instance, these counties formed Trump’s strongest base of support (63%) and largest vote total (934,667).

Countrypolitan counties are rural but economically linked to major urban centers. They are also growing at a fast clip, as residents flee the nearby higher-priced urban counties, seeking more affordable real estate, lower taxes, and less progressive policies.

In the Triangle, counties like Johnston and Franklin fit the bill. Near Charlotte, Union, Cabarrus, and Gaston counties are in the same category. In the Triad area, think of counties like Davidson and Stokes near Winston-Salem and Randolph and Rockingham near Greensboro.

Duke researchers concluded that Trump won the state due to his decisive victory margins in countrypolitan counties. Core urban counties solidly went for Biden over Trump: Wake (62% vs. 36%), Mecklenburg (67% vs. 32%), Durham (80% vs. 18%), and Guilford (61% vs. 38%). Contrast that with the results from key countrypolitan counties, where Trump won decisively: Union (61% vs. 37%), Johnston (61% vs. 37%), and Davidson (73% vs. 26%).

In a reality that defies conventional wisdom, the countrypolitan regions of the state broke more heavily for Trump in 2020 than the state’s 50 rural counties clearly outside the influence of major urban areas.

“Without the countrypolitan vote, Biden would have won the state by a 53% to 45% margin thanks to his strong majorities in the bigger-city counties,” wrote McCorkle and Salzberg in an op-ed describing the results of their analysis.

A component of what makes countrypolitan counties more GOP-friendly is their significant population of white voters — 72.1%, compared to the statewide average of 62.6%. These areas also have fewer college graduates.

According to McCorkle and Salzberg, Democrats’ goal should not be to win countrypolitan regions but rather to lose them less severely. A pitfall for Democrats is to focus on running up vote totals in reliably blue areas while failing to make inroads in countrypolitan regions.

“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,” McCorkle and Salzberg write.

The countrypolitan stack up in North Carolina stands in contrast to the political reality in Southern states such as Virginia and Georgia, both of which broke for Biden in 2020. The counties outlying the strong urban centers in northern Virginia sided with Biden, and the same story held true for the counties outlying Atlanta.