North Carolina’s Most Interesting County

As an elections analyst who was raised in North Carolina, the Tar Heel State, even if it weren’t a hot battleground state, is one of the states I watch most closely. Last year, it remained a light shade of red at the Presidential level, though was more of a mixed bag downballot, with Democrats gaining the Governor’s Mansion back.

Even as one who’s watched the state over several cycles, the result that surprised me most was Robeson County. Nestled in the southeastern corner of the state, it flipped red. Though it’s culturally conservative, it was also one of the comparatively few counties where Gov. Romney performed worse than Sen. McCain; both lost it by double-digits, so the fact that it flipped (narrowly) to Trump was a rather blunt change.

As of 2015, the county had a population of about 135K. The county seat, and largest city, is Lumberton, which has a central location. Other smaller towns include Maxton, in the western corner, and Pembroke, which houses a UNC campus:

Perhaps the characteristic that sets Robeson County apart from many others in the south is its racial diversity. It’s home to the Lumbee Tribe, a state-recognized American Indian tribe which has just north of 50,000 members. The Lumbee make up 37% of the county’s population, with 30% being white, 24% being black, and nearly another 10% claiming some other ethnicity.

For this piece, I’ve grouped precincts together based on their ethnic plurality. Geographically, white precincts run in an arc along the county’s eastern border; the Lumbee live in the central and western areas, while black-plurality precincts are mixed in between:

From an electoral standpoint, it’s traditionally been among the most Democratic counties in the state. A great fit for this area was former Congressman Mike McIntyre (D); he served in the House from 1997 to 2015 as a fiscally centrist but socially conservative Democrat.

The Democrat’s registration advantage isn’t as large as it once was, but they still claim a hefty majority of its voters. In January 2004 (the earliest date the state site provides data for), 81.4% of the county’s registered voters were Democrats, 10.3% were Republicans and Unaffiliated took the final 8.3%. As of this month, the Democrats are down to 65.9%. Unaffiliated voters have increased their presence markedly (like most North Carolina counties), making up just under 21% of the county’s voters. They leapfrogged GOP voters, who now constitute 13.2% of registered residents.

At the Presidential level, recent Democratic nominees, with the exception of Secretary Clinton, clearly carried it: (right click to enlarge)

Not surprisingly, the black precincts have been the most loyal to Democrats; in 2000, Gore carried them roughly 3:1, with Secretary Clinton earning a somewhat worse 70%. On the other extreme, white precincts have leaned Republican, though President Obama took 48% of their vote in 2012. An interesting comparison here is 2004 to 2016: Clinton lost the county while doing better in white precincts than Kerry, who won it overall.

The Lumbee bloc, however, has grown much more conservative. In the span of 16 years, Lumbee precincts have gone from being almost as Democratic as the black precincts to becoming almost as GOP as the white ones.

At the Senatorial level, the story is similar. For this, I’ve divided the Senate seats up based on their class. North Carolina’s Class II seat was up in 2002, and most recently up in 2014:

In 2002, Clinton Administration official Erskine Bowles (D) lost to former Transportation Secretary Liddy Dole (R) by almost 9%, but won Robeson County by 27%. Bowles swept all three major racial groups.

When Dole was up for reelection, amidst the 2008 wave, State Sen. Kay Hagan (D) ousted her by 8.5%; this was actually the first time in Senate history where an incumbent woman was defeated by another woman. Despite the 17% statewide swing against her, Dole actually improved in the county, courtesy of the Lumbee vote. Dole performed about the same in the white and black precincts, but she improved from 28% to 42% among the Lumbee. For decades, the tribe has sought the benefits that come from federal recognition. They’ve been unsuccessful, but Dole made several attempts at this, so it makes sense that she improved with them in 2008.

In the red wave of 2014, Hagan herself was very narrowly washed out by State Assembly Speaker Thom Tillis (R). Hagan carried the county by 10%, with the swing being relatively uniform among the three demographic groups.

North Carolina’s Class III seat was up in 2016, here’s how Robeson voted since 2004:

Despite his seat’s historical penchant for turning over its occupants, Sen. Richard Burr (R) won his last three elections.

After his 2002 loss to Dole, Erskine Bowles ran again against then-Congressman Richard Burr. This time, Bowles came closer, but still lost by 4.6%. Still, he carried Robeson County with over 60%.

In 2010, Burr had the benefit of a friendly national environment, and he won reelection by 12% against entrenched Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D). He held her to what was (at the time) considered a bare-bones 6% win in Robeson County. Burr easily carried the white areas 58/42, however, Marshall’s 57% with the Lumbee was on par with Hagan’s 58% in 2008.

For 2016, with Trump flipping the county red, it likewise swung to Burr. He carried it 51/49 against ex-State Rep. Deborah Ross (D).Trump’s inroads with the Lumbee transferred to the Senate race. Burr performed marginally better with whites and blacks, but saw the Lumbee precincts swing 24% towards him.

While the movement is clear in the Presidential and Senate races, the most extreme changes in Robeson County were at the Gubernatorial level:

In 2000, State Attorney General Mike Easley (D) beat former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot (R) by 6%. Though being from eastern NC certainly helped, Easley put up Soviet-style numbers in Robeson. He won it by more than 3:1 – his 87%(!) with the Lumbee precincts actually eclipsed his 83% with black ones.

For 2004, Easley was reelected easily, by 13%, against State Sen. Patrick Ballatine (R). Ballantine perhaps got something a regional boost, as he hailed from the nearby Wilmington area. Easley won it with over 70%, though he didn’t sweep all its precincts. Much of the swing here was driven by the Lumbee; Easley dropped from 87% to 77% with them.

Easley’s Lieutenant, Bev Perdue (D), succeeded him in 2008, beating out another Charlotte mayor, Pat McCrory (R). Perdue was likewise from the east (New Bern). Perdue won statewide by a more narrow 3%, but gained slightly in Robeson County. Compared to Easley in 2004, she did better with blacks and the Lumbee, but slightly worse with whites.

Perdue was not popular, and she retired after a single term. McCrory made a second run, and for much of the campaign, he was in the driver’s seat against Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton (D). McCrory waltzed into the Governor’s Mansion, winning by 11%, but Dalton still cleared 60% in Robeson. Though he was the first Democrat in this series to lose the white precincts, he only did so by a slim 3%.

2016 was a complete departure from this pattern. State Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) challenged McCrory, and eeked out a narrow win of just over 10,000 votes. Despite Robeson’s affinity for downballot Democrats, Cooper underperformed Clinton, who was already losing the county. McCrory went from winning the white precincts with 52% in 2012 to 59% in 2016.

McCrory’s gains with the Lumbee were historic: he beat Cooper 60/40 with them, after losing them 2:1 just four years earlier.

So Miles, why did McCrory improve so much with the Lumbee?

It’s easy to point to Hurricane Matthew, which barreled through eastern North Carolina one month before the November 2016 election. McCrory is said to have gotten something of a ‘hurricane boost’: as the state’s executive at the time, he spearheaded the response and recovery. Still, the Lumbee-heavy parts of Robeson County sustained only minor flooding:

Another factor that may have helped McCrory here was his support for HB2, the state’s so-called “bathroom bill.” It linked restroom usage to one’s birth gender. It was criticized as trans-phobic, and prompted some corporations to boycott the state. Cooper ran hard against HB2, which helped in the major metro areas, but did not play well in the southeast.

Robeson County, though heavily Democratic, is arguably one of the most socially conservative counties in the state. A good example of this was the Amendment 1 vote in May of 2012. That year, the Republicans, who control the legislature, put a referendum on the ballot which, if passed, would have banned same-sex marriage. The measure, known as Amendment I, passed with 61%.

Aside from tiny Graham County, in Appalachia, Robeson was the most pro-Amendment 1 county. It passed there with 86%; even its aforementioned Democratic Congressman, Mike McIntyre, came out in support of it. Most significantly, Amendment 1 passed with 92% in Lumbee precincts:


While the 2016 result in Robeson was rather abrupt, looking long term, the Lumbee were slowly drifting right for several cycles. For instance, even before last year, both Mike Easley in 2000 and Bev Perdue in 2008 swept every precinct there. While Perdue won by 43% instead of Easley’s 50%, she lost the most ground in the northern, Lumbee precincts:

Some good news for Democrats may be that in the other statewide races, Robeson County voted more in line with history. Aside from the Presidential, Senate and Gubernatorial races, North Carolina featured elections for nine statewide row offices. Though the row races broke six to three in favor of Republicans, every Democratic candidate carried Robeson County. In what we’re calling the ‘Statewide’ average of these nine races, Robeson County voted 56/44 in favor of Democrats, with the Lumbee precincts being slightly more blue, at 56.6%:

However, there’s more good news for Republicans at the legislative level!

In the State Senate, Robeson County is paired with Columbus County, to it’s southeast. Though Columbus is much less diverse (nearly 70% white), it likewise has a strong Democratic heritage. Columbus is smaller, with 57K people to Robeson’s 135K. Together, they make up Senate District 13.

In 2014, SD-13 was left open. Jane Smith (D) won a competitive primary and took 63% in the general election. Her victory was pretty standard for the area. She took 68% in Robeson and 55% in Columbus. For comparison, in the US Senate race that year, Sen. Hagan carried SD-13 with 53%. She won Robeson by 10%, while losing Columbus by just 151 votes:

Last year, while the Republican sentiment seemed to pass over the state row offices, Smith wasn’t as lucky. In one of the biggest legislative upsets, attorney Danny Earl Britt (R) beat her 55/45. Britt won Robeson 52/48 and Columbus 60/40. The map on the right is the swing from Smith’s 2014 race – 35.6% districtwide. Though the Lumbee precincts swung hard against her, Smith also lost considerable ground in the white precincts, towards the eastern border with Columbus County:


If Democrats are going to nibble away at the GOP’s legislative majorities, districts like SD-13 should get a lot of attention.

Overall, the tri-tonal demographic landscape of Robeson County reminds me of my (original) home state: Louisiana. Louisiana is known for its volatile politics, which is in large part a product of its three competing groups.

Though a Republican-leaning state now, it was Democratic for much of its history. During the transition period, lasting from roughly 1970 to 2000, it was often a competitive two-party state. White Protestants in the north would vote Republican, whereas blacks, dispersed throughout the state, are heavily Democratic. The third group, white Catholics, in the state’s south, had a mild Democratic tilt, and frequently joined with with the blacks. As white Catholics voted increasingly often with their Protestant brethren, they pulled the lean of the state rightward.

In Robeson County, the Lumbee have acted as the Catholics in Louisiana. In the big-ticket races, they did the most to swing the county red. The question going forward will be how of much of the 2016 pattern holds. While Robeson County has been trending Republican, some candidates, such as President Obama, were able to reverse the tide.

With new legislative maps in place for next year, and 2020 featuring another lineup of Presidential, Senate and Gubernatorial contests, we’ll definitely be watching this movement in southeastern North Carolina.