Donald Trump’s victory in North Carolina was fueled in part by wins in seven counties that had voted for President Barack Obama in 2012.
The counties that turned red on Tuesday have plenty in common. They’re all rural. Most are well outside the urban centers that drive the state’s economic growth. Many have some of North Carolina’s highest unemployment rates, and incomes are low.
Amid the vacant storefronts of Rockingham, Lumberton and Oxford, it’s easy to see why many voters liked Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message. When the Republican blasted trade deals for sending jobs overseas, residents of these counties could point to the shuttered factories and neighbors who had lost their jobs.
“NAFTA devastated Robeson County,” said Phillip Stephens, the county’s Republican Party chairman, referring to the 1994 trade agreement that Trump often criticizes. “The manufacturing industry had a huge exodus from this county after NAFTA. You can’t find anybody on the streets that doesn’t know somebody who lost their job from NAFTA.”
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Robeson County, a longtime Democratic Party stronghold along the South Carolina border, had the state’s biggest electoral shift by percentage of votes cast. About 58 percent of voters there backed Obama in 2012. But this year, 51 percent of voters picked Trump, while just 46 percent supported Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The results closely mirror the vote statewide, with about 50 percent of the votes for Trump and 46 percent for Clinton. Trump fared better in North Carolina than 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who carried the state by just two percentage points.
Trump won North Carolina despite a shift toward Democrats in many of the state’s fast-growing urban counties. In Wake County, for example, Clinton won by about 20 percentage points – up from an 11 percentage point Obama victory there in 2012.
And while Republican Gov. Pat McCrory trails Democrat Roy Cooper in the vote count, McCrory easily won most of the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump. While House Bill 2 appears to have hurt McCrory in urban counties, it may have helped him in socially conservative rural areas.
The election results illustrate a state where the partisan divide closely mirrors the economic divide between urban and rural.
Still, many rural voters aren’t ready to label themselves Republicans – even those who supported Trump. Registered Democrats still make up the majority of voters in all seven counties that flipped to Trump, but the percentage has declined about 5 to 10 percentage points since Obama was first elected in 2008.
In Robeson, registered Democrats make up 67 percent of voters, down from 76 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, the number of unaffiliated voters has increased from 13 percent in 2008 to 20 percent.
Political leaders there note that those registration numbers can be misleading, because many registered Democrats are actually conservatives who have been reluctant to cut longstanding family ties to the Democratic Party.
“So many folks down here have been registered Democrats forever,” said Danny Britt, a Lumberton Republican who won a state Senate race. “Democrats down here aren’t like Democrats in Chapel Hill or California. We’re in the Bible Belt. We like our guns.”
Like Trump, Britt pulled off an upset victory, unseating Democratic Sen. Jane Smith. Britt’s win helped legislative Republicans keep their veto-proof majorities despite losing a few GOP-held seats in Wake and Mecklenburg counties. House Republicans picked up four seats in rural counties.
Smith’s loss appears to have caught the state Democratic Party by surprise. While the party poured money into other contested legislative races, it did not contribute to Smith’s campaign in the final months before the election, records show. Meanwhile, Republican groups gave Britt more than $60,000 in the last three months of the election.
“I don’t think we’ve had a countywide elected Republican since before the Civil War,” Britt said, adding that many people “told me it was impossible, that I needed to run as a Democrat. ... A lot of folks ate crow.”
Some in Robeson had been concerned that widespread flood damage from Hurricane Matthew might reduce turnout. While several polling places had to be moved, elections director G.L. Pridgen said he hasn’t seen a reduction.
About an hour’s drive west, Richmond County had a similar election shift. While Obama carried the county by 3 percentage points in 2012, Trump won by 10 points on Tuesday.
State Rep. Ken Goodman, a Rockingham Democrat, said that like a lot of rural North Carolina, voters there feel “that we have been left behind.”
“We have a lot of closed textile plants and manufacturing plants, and I think a lot of people heard Trump’s message and it appealed to them,” Goodman said. “I think for unskilled workers or moderately skilled workers, it’s just a tough situation.”
As of September, Richmond County had the state’s 10th highest unemployment rate, although it has improved from 14.4 percent in 2011 to 6.7 percent. County Commissioner John Garner points out that a cabinet maker just added 175 jobs.
“It’s more skilled jobs in a lot of ways,” Garner says, adding that people there continue to have negative views of the economy even though “we’ve been successful in job creation.”
Garner, a Democrat who was re-elected this year despite Trump’s success in the county, said he saw few signs of the much-hyped Clinton campaign voter turnout effort in Richmond.
Clinton focused her North Carolina visits on urban areas; to see a Clinton rally, Richmond County residents would have had to drive nearly two hours to Charlotte.
“The Republican Party here became more active this election than they have ever been,” Garner said. “They got out a lot of signage and a lot of grassroots efforts behind them.”
Like Robeson County, the number of registered Democrats in Richmond has dropped, but they still make up 57 percent of registered voters.
Some of those registered Democrats voted for Trump. But Antonio Blue – mayor of Dobbins Heights and a former Democratic candidate for Congress – notes that a GOP candidate for county commissioner still lost.
“That tells me that a lot of people crossed the aisle” in the presidential race, Blue said.
Dobbins Heights is more than 80 percent African-American, and Blue says some sat out this election. “A lot of people didn’t vote for various reasons – I don’t know why,” he said.
Blue says he thinks many of his neighbors in Richmond County will have buyer’s remorse when Trump’s promised economic gains don’t materialize.
“I think people are going to find out the hard way: No friends are permanent, only the issues are permanent,” he said.
Two other counties that shifted from Obama to Trump did so because of a changing population, Republican leaders there say.
Granville and Gates counties are somewhat better off economically than Richmond or Robeson, with lower unemployment rates and higher median incomes. But that’s largely because they’ve begun to function as bedroom communities for nearby cities.
Granville Republican Party chairman Floyd Adsit said Trump voters there were a mix of conservative Democrats and newcomers who commute to Raleigh or Durham. Trump won by 2.5 percentage points; Obama won by 4.5 points in 2012.
“Granville County is a county in transition, and there’s a lot of demographic changes happening right now,” he said.
Gates County has attracted transplants who work in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia but prefer to live in a rural community, said Republican Party chairman Thomas Hill. That’s helped the local GOP, which Hill said had just $13.77 in its bank account when he moved to the area and joined in 2011.
Many of the commuters work in the shipbuilding industry in Virginia and liked Trump’s promises of a stronger military, Hill said. And Gates County residents were upset by Clinton’s infamous description of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” he said.
But national issues weren’t the only factors at play. Voters there also rejected a county property tax increase to pay for school construction. And many are religious and supported Gov. Pat McCrory on HB2, which among other provisions requires people in government facilities to use bathrooms and changing rooms matching their birth certificates. “We do not want men in the women’s bathroom,” Hill said.
In a county Obama won by 4 percentage points in 2012, Republicans won up and down the ballot for the first time in recent memory.
“It flipped hard,” Hill said. “It went bloodshot red Republican,”
David Raynor contributed to this report
Counties that flipped
Robeson County: 4.83 percentage point win margin for Trump, 17.41 percentage point win margin for Obama in 2012
Gates County: 8.97 margin for Trump, 4.11 margin for Obama in 2012
Richmond County: 10.08 margin for Trump, 2.95 margin for Obama in 2012
Bladen County: 9.42 margin for Trump, 1.96 margin for Obama in 2012
Granville County: 2.47 margin for Trump, 4.54 margin for Obama in 2012
Martin County: 1.5 margin for Trump, 4.65 margin for Obama in 2012
Nash County: 0.25 margin for Trump, 0.97 margin for Obama in 2012