Everyone loves lists, and the internet age now has us addicted to them — the top-five greatest tennis grand-slam finals between left-handers, the top 10 best-looking spouses of celebrity chefs, etc.
Obviously, I jumped at the chance when asked to compile a list of such lists of North Carolina politics. I know, gentle reader, you love lists, too, so I’m going to present some of them periodically in my columns.
The first is “the five most important counties in North Carolina politics today.” In no particular order:
Cumberland, home to Fayetteville, has become a battleground county in our purple state. This doesn’t mean it has swing voters. It has a slightly smaller proportion of unaffiliated voters than the state as a whole, but many fewer than the handful of other large urban counties. This is a consequence of its large African-American population and huge military population.
At 41 percent, no other large county, not even Durham, comes close in the proportion of registered voters who are black and, as home to Fort Bragg — the biggest military base in the world — more than one-in-five residents of Cumberland are veterans. These days, veterans are going for Republicans by more than 20 points. The county must split at least 55 percent to Democrats for them to win statewide. Unfortunately for the party, Cumberland’s turnout was about eight percentage points lower than the state’s in 2016.
New Hanover, where Wilmington sits, isn’t quite the size of Cumberland. It’s in that second tier of counties by size, one that includes Buncombe, Cabarrus, and Gaston. But of the top-10 counties, it resembles a microcosm of North Carolina. Donald Trump won there in 2016 by the same amount he did statewide. As he and Sen. Richard Burr were securing the support of a majority of New Hanoverian voters, so was now-Gov. Roy Cooper. The county picked every 2016 Council of State winner except in the auditor’s race. It’s more female, older, and much whiter than the state, giving it a more culturally liberal feel. Its population has increased by more than an eighth since 2010.
A number of exurban counties around Charlotte and the Triangle are candidates, but I think Union, on the South Carolina border southeast of Mecklenburg, deserves special mention. It’s large and rapidly growing but, unlike many other counties around the states’ major cities, maintains its Republican demeanor. It has the second-highest median household income of any county and contains Monroe, home to Jesse Helms. No GOP statewide candidate received less than 63 percent of the vote in 2016, a performance that, if anything, marked a slight improvement over 2008. Turnout is, not surprisingly, consistently high. If Republican candidates are to win presidential, gubernatorial, and U.S. Senate races in North Carolina, they need to run up the score in Union.
The extraordinary economic, demographic, and political changes occurring in the mountains propel Henderson County onto the list. Whereas larger Buncombe County has become a Democratic powerhouse, adjacent Henderson is considerably more Republican. It has emerged as an important counterweight to Asheville in the region’s competitive party politics. Unlike Down East, mountain conservatives are more libertarian in outlook. Henderson is one of only three counties where a plurality of voters are unaffiliated. Nearly half of its residents don’t associate with any recognizable organized church. It has been crucial to the electoral success of Rep. Mark Meadows and has shaped the congressman as he has risen to prominence in Washington and the House Freedom Caucus. It will undoubtedly play an important role in the future of the state GOP as social and economic conservatives tussle for control.
Mecklenburg, home to Charlotte, is the largest county in the state with more than a million residents. I have omitted Wake, second only to Mecklenburg by about 30,000.
That’s mainly because Mecklenburg’s African-American population is much larger. Democrats must extend their margins of victory here if they are to win statewide, and turnout is crucial. It’s consistently about eight percentage points lower than Wake — this was so even with Barack Obama on the ballot. Elevating Mecklenburg’s turnout to Wake’s levels is probably worth about 50,000 votes to Democrats. As we have seen over the past several cycles, that can make the difference in our purple state. In 2016, it might well have given them two additional seats on the Council of State.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.