Photo: Voters go to the polls at a community center in Stokes County, where Trump increased his vote share from 75.9 percent to 78.3 percent, from 2016 to 2020. (photo by Jordan Green)
Democrats consolidated dominance in the counties that make up North Carolina’s three major urban regions — Charlotte; Raleigh and Durham in the Triangle; and Greensboro and Winston-Salem in the Triad — comparing unofficial election results with 2016, when Donald Trump ran against Hillary Clinton. Likewise, in the blue mountain enclaves in counties encompassing Asheville and Boone.
Joe Biden, the Democratic president-elect, flipped New Hanover County, home to Wilmington.
Urban-adjacent counties like Cabarrus, northeast of Charlotte; Johnston, southeast of Raleigh; and even Alamance, wedged between Greensboro and Durham, also saw significant swings toward the Democratic presidential nominee. The mountain counties, from Hickory to the western tip in Cherokee, while still heavily Republican, trended blue to varying degrees.
But the 2020 election, which remains to be certified as absentee ballots trickle in this week, is not necessarily a story of Democratic ascendancy in North Carolina. Trump, who will likely carry North Carolina when all the votes are tallied, strengthened his hold over rural Piedmont counties, from Granville to Rockingham, and the northwestern highlands, from Stokes to Wilkes.
The outgoing president stacked up a huge advantage in Robeson County, where he held a rally in the waning days of the campaign and promised the Lumbee people that he would back tribal status. The gambit appears to have paid off, with Trump building out his 4.3-percent margin over Clinton in 2016 to 17.8 points over Biden this year. It wasn’t just Robeson where Trumpism made gains: Rural counties on the coastal plain, including some that are traditionally Democratic, swung heavily towards Trump. Scotland County on the South Carolina state line, which Clinton carried by 7.6 points in 2016, tipped into Trump’s column by 1.8 points this year.
But overall, Biden whittled down Trump’s 2016 lead over Clinton, from 3.6 points to 1.4 points, or from 173,315 to 75,118 votes, according to unofficial results. The five largest counties in the state — Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Durham and Forsyth — generated 227,736 votes combined for Biden in surplus of what they delivered for Clinton four years ago.
With unprecedented turnout driving electoral trends in opposing directions, depending on county, it’s clear that the state of North Carolina contains political multitudes. Voters in North Carolina reelected Roy Cooper, a Democratic governor whom they credited for a cautious, science-based approach to the pandemic, while at the same time electing Mark Robinson, a pro-Second Amendment social-media sensation who has described COVID-19 as a “globalist” conspiracy to destroy Trump and referred to the LGBTQ community as “devil worshiping child molesters,” as their next lieutenant governor. They elected Ricky Hurtado as the first Latinx member of the NC House from Alamance County, a community sharply divided over the fate of the Confederate monument in front of its Historic Courthouse. And they elected Madison Cawthorn, a far-right candidate who has flirted with white supremacy and the QAnon controversy, to Congress in a district whose constituent counties are overwhelmingly trending blue.
In Guilford County, where Biden led Trump by a 23.1-point margin — compared to Clinton’s 19.9-point margin in 2016 — a corresponding surge of voters helped Democrats sweep the three races for board of commissioners, although Republican Alan Branson is seeking a recount against Democrat Mary Beth Murphy, who currently leads him by only 18 votes.
In neighboring Forsyth County, Biden likewise expanded the Democratic lead in the presidential contest by 3.5 points. It was not enough the put any of the three Democratic candidates in the suburban, Republican-leaning District B over the top. But they narrowed the gap significantly, with Christopher Smith, the leading Democratic candidate, trailing Republican Richard Linville by 9,959 votes, or 2.6 points. In contrast, Democratic candidate Selester Stewart trailed Republican Gloria Whisenhunt, by 23,442 votes, or 7.1 points, in 2016.
“They told us this was going to be a blowout, but we showed that it’s not unwinnable,” Smith reflected on election night.
Down Home North Carolina, an organization launched after Trump’s 2016 election victory, mobilized voters in five Democratic-trending counties. Down Home focuses on multiracial organizing for working-class interests in rural communities. The organization gained the most traction in Alamance and Cabarrus counties, which swung 4.0 points and 10.2 points respectively towards the Democratic presidential candidate. While Down Home defines them as rural, the two counties are both former textile hubs located on heavily traveled interstates adjacent to cities.
In Alamance County, Democrat Ricky Hurtado appears to have squeaked out a narrow victory over Republican Stephen Ross in House District 63, one of the few Democratic pickups in an election where Democrats overall lost seats in the House. In Cabarrus County, Down Home-backed Democrat Gail Young fell short in her bid to unseat Larry Pittman, a Republican incumbent who has attended receptions hosted by the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans and who once called President Lincoln a “tyrant,” in House District 83 by less than 1,400 votes. Aimy Steele, another Down Home-backed Democrat, also lost her race to her Republican opponent, Kristin Baker, in District 82, but by a wider margin.
Despite losing her bid to be the first Black woman to serve on the Alamance County Board of Commissioners, Dreama Caldwell is being credited with mobilizing new voters.
“In Alamance County, more Black Democrats turned out than white Democrats for the first time ever,” said Gayle Schwartzberg, Down Home’s political director. “I think you can attribute that to Dreama’s run. The fact that these races were so close despite the barriers says a lot. Black folks turned out despite the [Oct. 31 police pepper-spraying] incident in Graham. In Cabarrus County, folks were having issues at the polls. There was voter intimidation specifically at early voting sites where Black people traditionally go to cast ballots.”
Schwartzberg said Black voters in Cabarrus County encountered people displaying Confederate flags or Trump flags draped around their necks and getting close to their personal space.
Andrew Willis Garcés, an organizer with Siembra NC and member of the national political action committee Mijente, credits Caldwell with mobilizing Black voters to put Hurtado over the top.
“I think that’s part of Ricky’s success story,” Garcés said. “There was this Black and brown slate of candidates. She activated a lot of Black voters. We think it’s really important that Ricky is the first Latinx member of the House. The story could be there’s a lot of Latinos who turn out, but the truth is that Black voters are a much bigger contributor to his win.”
Schwartzberg said it’s possible that some of the Democratic drift in counties like Cabarrus and Alamance is due to progressive voters moving there from nearby cities, but she emphasized that the majority of Down Home’s volunteers are people who have spent most of their lives there.
‘To have somebody running who looks like you, who has shared experience is really powerful,” Schwartzberg said. “Folks look at Dreama and see a lifelong member of the community, someone who was born in public housing. They see a Black woman who is a single mother. We had a whole slew of single mothers on our endorsement list. Having the ability to vote for someone who reminds you of yourself is really powerful.”
Parallel to Down Home’s efforts to mobilize a multiracial coalition of voters, Siembra NC’s efforts to specifically mobilize Latinx voters was born out of the Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016.
“Siembra was founded as a reaction to Trump’s war on immigrants,” Garcés said. “The day after the election I was working 10 hours a day at American Friends Service Committee answering phones from parents asking what they could do because their kids were getting bullied. And that was in Guilford County. That was just the tip of the iceberg. By January, we had executive orders designed to terrorize our community.”
In January 2020, Siembra launched a Latinx voter registration project in North Carolina. In 2016, Garcés said, there were 180,000 Latinx people in North Carolina who were eligible to vote but were not registered. In four years, Latinx voter registration increased 36 percent in North Carolina, Garcés said.
“We had a project for people having quinceañeras — which is the celebration of your 15th birthday,” Garcés reported. “If you let volunteers come in, they would get a grant of a photo booth they could use for taking selfies. We had young women making very impassioned speeches at their quinceañeras saying, ‘You’ve got to register if you’re about to turn 18.’”
During the election, Siembra members drove through Latinx neighborhoods with public address systems urging people to vote, and on Election Day, they deployed 78 volunteer vote protectors in nine counties, Garcés said.
While the nonpartisan Siembra focused on mobilizing Latinx voters, a partner organization Mijente campaigned against Trump and for local candidates, including Hurtado, Caldwell and Steele. Siembra also partnered with Down Home, Guilford for All and Forsyth Freedom Federation, which promoted specific candidates in their respective counties.
“Our job with Siembra was to make sure Latinx people felt like it was part of their obligation to their families to vote,” Garcés said. “Latinx people historically have had the highest non-participation rate for every election. We think the majority of us are going to vote to defend our communities.”
Garcés said the campaign deployed volunteers who themselves are ineligible to vote to mobilize others to vote on their behalf. Juana Tobar Ortega, a Guatemalan woman who is in sanctuary in a Greensboro church, made pupusas and horchata for Mijente Fuera Trump canvassers. DACA recipients reached out to Latinx voters who sat out 2016, and urged them to participate in 2020. And, Garcés said, two women whose husbands were detained by ICE in 2020, stood outside markets and provided rides to early voting for anyone who hadn’t voted and provided transportation to the polls.
Despite voters in mountain counties slightly tacking to the left in the presidential race, it wasn’t enough to make a difference in down-ballot in races, including the House District 119 race, where Democrat Joe Sam Queen was unseated by Republican Mike Clampitt.
“Looking at the races for the state House and Senate and for the courts, it’s a tough year for us,” Schwartzberg acknowledged.
Overall, the urban-rural split in North Carolina has deepened over the past four years. Trump’s vote share declined by 4.6 percent in urban counties and by 3.5 percent in suburban counties, said Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, while his vote share went up by 1.3 percent in rural counties.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the roughly 20 counties on the coastal plane, including several northeastern counties represented in the US House by Democrat GK Butterfield.
“Eastern North Carolina is hollowing out demographically,” Cooper said. “They’re areas that are not doing well economically. Culturally, they fit better with a Trump administration.” He added that outmigration of young people in those counties could help explain why voters there are becoming more conservative.
The 2020 political map suggests increasing Democratic dominance over urban counties and corresponding Republican strength in rural, eastern counties, with fierce battles waged in transitional counties like Alamance and Cabarrus. What you won’t see, Cooper said, is one party begin to dominate the presidential race or other contests that determine control over the council of state, legislature and courts.
“What I see is continued purple, is stability,” he said. “We were close in ’08. We were close in ’12. We were less close in ’16. It looks like it’s going to be incredibly close in 2020. I see us as being the kind of state decided on a razor’s edge.”