Commentators and academic analysts trying to make sense of North Carolina’s fascinating and ever-changing politics have been arguing lately that the state is becoming increasingly urbanized — and that this trend portends significant shifts in voting behavior and electoral outcomes.
They’ve got a point. But in trumpeting the arrival of urban politics, they’re jumping the gun quite a bit. Even today, most North Carolinians do not live in large, dense cities. Most do not live in urban areas at all. These North Carolinians still vote. And they still matter — a lot.
There are various ways to define terms such as “urban” and “rural.” For example, most would agree that Mecklenburg and Wake are urban counties. Yet you can still find suburban neighborhoods, small towns, unincorporated areas, and even farms in both places.
Still, counties remain a useful marker for studying populations. The density of such populations — the number of people per square mile — is probably the best measure of urbanization. There are only six counties in North Carolina with population densities above 750 per square mile: Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Durham, and New Hanover. According to the 2014 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, these arguably urban counties have a total population of 3.4 million, representing about a third of the state’s residents.
On the other end of the spectrum, 80 of the state’s 100 counties have population densities of 250 per square mile or less. While there are some municipalities in these counties with some urban characteristics, they are mostly rural places. Some 4.1 million North Carolinians reside there. Falling in-between the urban and rural designations are the remaining 14 counties. Most are growing rapidly. They contain some urbanized neighborhoods as well as rural stretches, but are best described as suburban counties. About a quarter of all North Carolinians live in them.
So even though the state has been urbanizing over time, the process hasn’t gone nearly as far as might be suggested by all those breathless media reports and sweeping political prognostications. Most of North Carolina isn’t particularly urban. Most North Carolinians still live in suburbs, small cities and towns, and rural communities.
Vote totals aren’t directly proportional to population estimates, of course. Some residents aren’t citizens and can’t vote. Others either aren’t registered to vote or cast ballots infrequently. Residents of urban counties tend to vote at higher-than-average rates, especially since the turn of the 21st century. But the fact remains that most of North Carolina’s electorate lives in places other than Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham, and Wilmington.
That doesn’t mean that suburban and rural voters are naturally hostile to urbanization or the interests of cities. They often work, shop, or play in cities. But there are differences in viewpoint and emphasis. Look at transportation. While all voters value good roads and bridges, suburban and rural voters tend to break with their urban counterparts when the question is whether to use state tax dollars to fund rail-transit projects. Regarding education, many residents of the Charlotte, Triangle, and Triad metropolitan areas have reacted to recent political controversies about student assignment and teacher quality in core urban counties by relocating themselves and their children to neighboring school districts. Rural residents perceive fewer options to vote with their feet, and so often respond to education debates quite differently.
Candidates running for governor or other statewide offices certainly can’t afford to run the same campaigns that their predecessors did generations ago when North Carolina truly was a state of modest cities, tiny towns, and far-flung farms. But neither they can pretend that winning Mecklenburg, Wake, and a few other populous counties is sufficient to win an election.
All this presents a challenge to Democrats hoping to recover their footing in North Carolina politics. They are doing pretty well in urban counties. But they seem to have lost the ability to compete with Republicans in suburban and rural areas where, not so long ago, moderate-to-conservative Democrats often won state and local races. Until the situation changes, the state will retain an unmistakable reddish hue.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.