Free + clear: Beyond the core
Winston Churchill once observed that “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” During the 2016 election cycle, it became evident that North Carolina produces more politics than we can consume locally. Our races for president, U.S. Senate, governor and even state legislature made headlines and newscasts across the country — as did a wave of disasters that were natural (Hurricane Matthew), social (the riots following the police-related shooting in Charlotte) and political (the tussle between Charlotte and the General Assembly that resulted in House Bill 2).
Some of the resulting journalism and analysis shed great light on the fascinating history and uncertain future of our state. Some of it properly described North Carolina politics, in all its competitiveness and complexity, as a microcosm of national trends. Other coverage was superficial and shoddy, none more so than the frequent assertion that our electoral contests and political conflicts were all about divisions between urban and rural.
Truly urban places — those with population densities well north of 1,000 people per square mile — remain relatively rare in North Carolina, although there are certainly more than in the past. Some analysts use a looser definition of 750 people per square mile. By that measure, six North Carolina counties qualify as urban: Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, New Hanover, Guilford and Forsyth. Of course, many people in those counties live in suburbs or traditional small towns, but if we go with this standard, then about 36% of the votes cast in the 2016 elections came from urban counties, roughly the same proportion as in the 2012 elections.
Democrats outpoll Republicans in these places. But unless the proportions become more gargantuan, Democrats can’t win competitive statewide elections just by turning out their urban base. During the 2016 campaigns, more than one out-of-state reporter asked me if North Carolina politics really just comes down to what happens in fast-growing Wake and Mecklenburg. “Democrats better hope not,” I replied, “because if that’s true, they’ll be crushed.”
Roy Cooper was one Democrat who knew better. A native of the eastern North Carolina community of Rocky Mount, which he represented in the state legislature for many years before his election as attorney general in 2000, Cooper recognized that the 80% of voters who live somewhere other than Wake and Mecklenburg still mattered. His gubernatorial campaign didn’t just hope to turn out the modern Democratic base. It also targeted older Democrats in rural communities who had long histories before 2012 of voting Republican for president and Democratic for governor, as well as suburban voters, often younger or born elsewhere, who might split their tickets on the basis of issues such as education funding or HB2.
The result was that Pat McCrory got about 63,000 fewer votes than Donald Trump did in North Carolina, while Cooper outpolled Hillary Clinton by nearly 120,000. This differential didn’t present itself in Wake and Mecklenburg, where McCrory outpolled Trump (but fell significantly short of his 2012 numbers). Among North Carolina voters who identified themselves as urban in exit polls, Cooper and Clinton both got 61% of the vote. Among suburban voters, Cooper won 39% to Clinton’s 37%. Among rural voters, Cooper won 44% to Clinton’s 40%.
Every Democrat running statewide in North Carolina won the urban vote convincingly. But most lost their races. That’s because nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters live in suburbs, small cities, small towns or rural communities. Successful Republicans run up the score there. Competitive Democrats stop them.