Exploring The Politics of Columbus County, NC

Yesterday, Poltico ran a story titled ‘The Democrats’ Gerrymandering Obsession’. Essentially, while the GOP has certainly taken advantage of partisan gerrymandering, unfair maps aren’t the *only* source of Democrats’ electoral problems. Though gerrymandering seems to get the most attention, the party has been criticized for ignoring, or at least not connecting well enough with, certain constituencies – even ones they’ve relied on before.

One of the best examples that of this is Columbus County, North Carolina. As a self-proclaimed conservative Democrat raised in North Carolina, I’ve watched in frustration over the past cycles as this once solidly Yellow Dog county has steadily drifted GOP.

Columbus County is shaped like a bell and sits in southeastern North Carolina – by land area, it’s actually the largest county in the state. It’s population is just under 60,000 with the most populous city, Whiteville, having a central location. It’s second-largest city is Tabor City, which sits on the border with South Carolina. Other communities are Chadbourn, Bolton, and Boardman. Geographically, the eastern edge of the county is dominated by Lake Waccamaw.

Demographically, it is 70% white and roughly 25% black. The county is home to the Waccamaw Sioun tribe, though they don’t have as much as presence here as, say, the Lumbee in neighboring Robeson County.

Culturally, the county is very conservative, and Blue Dog Democrats have historically done well here. A good example of how local Democrats could lean on Columbus County was the 2012 House race in the 7th Congressional District. That year, Rep. McIntyre, a very conservative Democrat who represented the are well for seven terms, ran for reelection in a newly-redrawn (tougher) version of his seat. He held on by 654 votes – due in part to his 65/35 margin in Columbus County (highlighted in yellow). He won despite President Obama getting blown out by 19%:

McIntyre retired in 2014, and the district flipped Republican.

Columbus began the millennium as a Democratic-leaning county. President Bush narrowly flipped it in 2004, and it’s voted Republican ever since. Still, its trajectory was interesting, in that it was one of the few counties were Romney did worse than McCain (only to go heavily for Trump last year):

In Senatorial races, the pattern has been similar. The last Democrat to carry it was Sen. Kay Hagan, who did rather comfortably in 2008. While the ‘tipping point’ for the county at the Presidential level was in 2004, at this level, it was 10 years later, in 2014. While Sen. Richard Burr won it, as a Republican, in 2010, his race was a 12% blowout. 2014 was a considerably more competitive race, and it narrowly broke against Hagan:

The transition has been most stark at the Gubernatorial level. In 2000, Governor Mike Easley (D) started out with a nearly 3:1 margin here. In 2004, he dropped to 64/35, with Gov. Bev Perdue (D) actually improving on that in 2008. In 2012, Gov. Pat McCrory won the Governorship by just over 11%; this was enough to eek out the first Republican Gubernatorial win in Columbus County in generations. In 2016, despite getting bounced from office, McCrory posted a historic showing there for a Republican, getting almost 60%:

Even in 2016, some of the signs that drove Columbus County to historically Republican levels in the fall were evident in the earlier primaries.

President Trump clearly had appeal here. In the primary, it was the only county were he cleared 60%, and one of only three where he margin was greater than 30%. He swept *every* precinct in the county:

On the Democratic side, Secretary Clinton won the state by 14% over Sen. Sanders – this was a nice reversal of her 14% loss in North Carolina to President Obama in 2008. Despite this roughly 30% statewide swing, Clinton took about the same share of the vote in Columbus County. While Sanders did several points worse than Obama, he was still able to flip a wide swath of the county’s rural area. Not surprisingly, many of Sanders’ precincts were the ones that went most heavily against Clinton later in the general election:

At the lower levels of the Democratic primary, there was noticeable protest voting. The biggest example of this was in the Gubernatorial contest. Roy Cooper, as a four-term state Attorney General, lost Columbus County by *nine points* to a Some Dude named Ken Spaulding. Cooper won the nomination with almost 70% of the vote, but Columbus was one of five counties he lost.

One interesting result was that Cooper’s precincts more closely aligned with Clinton’s than Sanders’:

In the general election, Roy Cooper was able to oust McCrory, but carried just 27 counties. If Democrats are going to be more competitive at the statewide and legislative levels, winning back places like Columbus County are going to be key.