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Red counties’ growth could shift North Carolina politics

Biden (left) Trump (right)
Creative Commons license
Biden (left) and Trump won the North Carolina primaries.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Last decade, North Carolina’s urban counties — Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, etc., — absorbed almost all of the state’s new people.

Most rural counties lost population. In fact, half of the state’s 100 counties had fewer people in 2020 than they did in 2010.

It was a demographic, economic and cultural shift — here’s a way to look at it from a political lens:

Between 2010 and 2020, the 25 counties that Joe Biden won gained nearly 649,000 people. The 75 counties that Donald Trump in 2020 won added about 240,000.

From that perspective, it’s understandable for Democrats to assume time is on their side; demographics are destiny and will eventually push them to a majority. With just a few more years, North Carolina might become Virginia.

But the release of new Census population estimates earlier this month has put that narrative on pause.

From 2020 to 2023, the 25 counties that Biden won gained 175,000 people. The 75 counties that Trump won gained 206,000 people.

Of the 10 counties with the fastest rate of population loss over the last three years, five were won by Biden, in the state’s rural northeast “Black Belt.”

Trump won all 10 of the counties with the fastest rate of population gain over the last three years, all were won by Trump.

What does this mean for elections?

For Democrats, the good news is that Mecklenburg and Wake County continue to add the most number of people, even if their growth rate is slowing down.

Their combined population has grown by 106,000 people since 2020. More than 1 in 4 of the new people added to the state are in those two heavily Democratic counties.

But Mecklenburg and Wake are getting crowded and expensive. New arrivals are still flocking to the Charlotte and Raleigh metro areas, but they may not be able to live in the big city.

Cabarrus County, northeast of Charlotte, is a good example of that trend. It’s a “red county” that’s becoming purple as Democrats colonize it.

In 2016, Trump beat Hilary Clinton by 18,300 votes there. Four years later, Trump only beat Biden by a little more than 11,000.

Many of the new people moving to Cabarrus are voting Democratic, it seems, even if the number of registered Democrats isn't increasing. By the end of the decade, it may become “Blue-barrus,” as Democrats hope.

That’s also happening in Henderson County, just south of Asheville. Trump won it by nearly 16,000 votes in 2016. He only won it by 12,800 in 2020.

If you are a Democrat, that’s how you want to spin the latest population numbers: Ruby-red exurbs turning purple, then blue, as liberal voters spread outward in search of affordability

Suburban/exurban counties that are booming — and staying red

But other fast-growing suburban counties aren’t becoming purple.

Iredell County is north of Mecklenburg County. One of its biggest towns, Mooresville, is adjacent to Davidson, one of the most progressive municipalities in the state.

But despite Iredell’s proximity and ties to liberal Mecklenburg County, Republicans keep getting stronger there.

Here is the Republican vote share in Iredell over the last several elections:

  • 2016: 66.3% 
  • 2018 75.4% (Note that U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry had no real competition.)
  • 2020: 65.5%
  • 2022: 66.9%

As you can see, Democrats made a small gain from 2016 to 2020, picking up nearly 1 percentage point more of the vote share — but that was more than offset by Iredell’s rapid growth, which has been 7% since 2020. Only 11 counties grew at a faster rate.
Trump won the county by 30,020 votes in 2016. Four years later he won Iredell by 33,122. So, even picking up a slightly smaller share of ballots cast, he won 10% more votes. And in a statewide race like the presidential — or governor, attorney general, etc. — that total is what counts.

A polling place at the McCrorey YMCA
Erin Keever
A polling place at the McCrorey YMCA.

Another interesting cluster of counties is south of Winston-Salem and Greensboro: Davie, Davidson and Randolph.

These exurban/rural counties collectively grew a little less than the state average since 2020, but they still added 10,330 new residents in total. Considering Mecklenburg added 46,000 people in that same period, that’s not an insignificant number.

And they are becoming even more conservative. Trump’s raw vote totals increased from 2016 to 2020. And the Republican vote share increased from 2016 to 2022.

In short, growth does not always equal good news for Democrats.

The impact of COVID

During the pandemic, people left cities across the nation. With remote work, they could live most anywhere.

Perhaps that trend is showing up in the latest Census numbers.

While 51 N.C. counties lost population from 2010-20, only 18 have lost people in the last three years.

Counties that are far from urban areas are also gaining population, albeit slowly. Conservative Montgomery County is 60 miles east of Charlotte. It lost 8% of its population last decade, but it’s grown by a little more than 1% since 2020.

It’s become more red in recent years. The number of registered Democrats in Montgomery has fallen by 20% since 2020; Republican registration has grown by 4%.

You can see this trend in other remote counties, as well, like Yadkin County, west of Winston-Salem. It lost 3% of its population last decade.

From 2020 to 2023, it has added 520 new residents, for a 1.5% growth rate.

Trump got 80% of the vote there four years ago, roughly a percentage point higher than he did in 2016.

For years, Democrats have seen Republicans getting stronger in rural counties, but we were able to placate themselves with the knowledge those parts of the state are shrinking. That’s no longer true.

The beach: Where the real growth is

While people are still flocking to the state’s large metro areas, the biggest rate of population increase is on the coast.

The three fastest-growing N.C. counties are Brunswick, Pender and Currituck.

Brunswick grew by a whopping 17% since 2020 — adding nearly 22,000 people in three years.

The area is full of retirees who have moved to planned communities along U.S. 17. They aren’t all conservative, but plenty of them are. With each federal election, the Republican candidate adds more and more to their raw vote total from Brunswick.

In 2016, Trump won Brunswick by roughly 19,400 votes. Four years later he won by 22,500. And a growing contingent of high turnout, consistently conservative voters in places like Brunswick County might be able to offset Democrats’ gains in urban counties for a long time.

What does it mean?

None of this is to say that Biden won’t become the second Democrat to win North Carolina since 1976.

Trump’s 2020 margin of victory in North Carolina was his smallest (1.3 percentage points, or 75,000 votes) of any state he won. It’s possible Trump’s legal troubles will make him too toxic for swing voters.

And the Biden campaign has said it will invest heavily here, in part because there are so few swing states in the race — Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But the Census data suggest Biden will have to win by persuasion and mobilization — not by riding demographic tailwinds.

The population growth to “red” counties this newsletter has explored is also showing up in data on registered voters.

There are 222,000 fewer registered Democrats today than in December 2020. Republican registration has also dropped — but only by 11,800. (Unaffiliated voters grew by 280,000.)

Consider: Since December 2020, there isn’t a single North Carolina county that has more registered Democrats today than four years ago.

Republicans have more registered voters than they did in 72 of the state’s 100 counties.

Does it matter?

You can make an argument that it doesn’t matter where people move to. A Democratic vote in Union County counts just as much as a Democratic vote in Mecklenburg.

But does where we live impact how we vote?

Let’s say an unaffiliated voter who supported Trump in 2020 moves from a red county to Charlotte. Their new peers might be ripping the ex-president; saying he’s an insurrectionist; that he’s not fit to lead; that he’s facing 91 felony charges.

That might push them into the Democratic camp.

And the same goes for an unaffiliated voter who supported Biden in 2020, but who now lives in Stanly County. Their peers might be denigrating the president, saying he’s too old; that inflation is too high; that the border isn’t secure.

Does that push them to vote for Trump?

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.