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Dr. Michael Bitzer: Suburban vote may be overrated

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Dr. Michael Bitzer is director of the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching at Catawba College. This article is from his blog, Old North State Politics.

In a discussion on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, I joined both Jonathan Kappler of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation and Dante Chinni of the American Communities Project to discuss the idea that in this year’s mid-term elections, suburbs could be the electoral battleground fields.

I’ve done a lot of data investigating and researching into North Carolina’s “regionalism” of urban vs. suburban vs. rural counties, but wanted to get a clearer picture of the national landscape and how the Old North State might line up, or be misaligned, to national patterns.

First, there needs to be some clarity of what we mean by the three terms: urban, suburban, and rural.

There is no commonly accepted definition of what it means to be urban other than related to “cities.” There is, however, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s delineation of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) as having “at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.”

Therefore, for this analysis, using the term “urban” will mean a county with an major city or “central city” and the associated counties (“surrounding counties”) that feed into that central city’s county.

For example, Charlotte’s MSA has the Queen City as its “central city” and Mecklenburg is the “central county” — thus the MSA’s urban area. The surrounding counties — Gaston, Lincoln, Iredell, Cabarrus, Rowan, Union, and a few counties in South Carolina — would be those “adjacent” areas that have “a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.”

Beyond urban

The OMB has a second classification for potential “urban” areas: micropolitan statistical areas which “have at least one urban cluster of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.” In North Carolina, an  area like Mount Airy is considered a micropolitan statistical area. Typically these areas have only one county associated with the designation.

Finally, there remain the counties not included in either metropolitan or micropolitan statistical areas. These are considered “rural” counties in this analysis.

I acquired the 2012 and 2016 county-level data for 49 states (Alaska was excluded in this analysis) and classified each state’s counties into whether they were part of an MSA (and whether the MSA counties were a “central county” or “associated county”), a micropolitan statistical area, or “rural.”

In 2012, approximately two-thirds of the votes cast came from the 552 central counties/urban counties; these urban counties are 17 percent of the 3,100 total counties in the nation. The 610 suburban/surrounding counties delivered 18 percent of the votes cast in 2012. Micropolitan counties (637) delivered 9 percent of the votes, and rural counties (1,310) delivered 7 percent.

Urban counties went 55 percent for Obama in 2012, while suburban counties and micropolitan areas went 54 percent for Romney. Rural counties went 61 percent for the Republican candidate.

Comparing it to 2016’s presidential totals, the “gap” between the partisan camps stayed in all four: 56 percent of the urban vote went to Clinton, while 54 percent of the suburban vote went for Trump. The largest jumps were in the micropolitan and rural areas: 63 percent and 64 percent for the Republican, respectively.

In 2016, urban counties delivered 63 percent of the nation’s votes, with suburban counties delivering 20 percent, micropolitan areas delivering 9 percent, and rural counties delivering 8 percent.

In our state

In looking at North Carolina’s dynamics in 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, some differences are apparent between the Old North State and national trends.

The urban counties are quite similar to the national trends, with the exception of Trump performing lower in North Carolina’s urban counties than he did in urban counties across the nation.

The striking difference among suburban N.C. counties to the nation is the significantly larger Republican performance in both 2012 and 2016, while North Carolina’s micropolitan and rural counties were basically identical to each other.

Recent data from the N.C. State Board of Election and Ethics Enforcement shows North Carolina suburban counties are the most Republican in the state, with urban counties seeing the least Republican registration.

With suburbs the new fascination of political analysts, the dynamics of voter behavior shows urban voters aligned against suburban and rural voters, at both the national and state level. 

While suburbs may be this year’s political fixation as to “battleground” status, the battle seems lopsided, at least from the data.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is director of the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching at Catawba College. This article is from his blog, Old North State Politics.

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