Alexander H. Jones: Democrats have hope in ‘countrypolitan’ areas

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2022

By Alexander H. Jones

Recently, Duke University researchers Mac McCorkle and Rachel Salzberg published an insightful report on what they call Democrats’ “countrypolitan” problem.

I first met Mac nearly 13 years ago when he was first transitioning out of political advising and into the academic world, and he is one of the most learned people I know. Thus, it did not come as a surprise that his and Salzberg’s work on the political trends of “countrypolitan” North Carolina was one of the most penetratingly insightful pieces of political analysis our state has seen in quite some time. Every Democrat, as well as every Republican, should read and learn from it.

In McCorkle’s analysis, “countrypolitan” counties are those on the outer edges of major metropolitan areas that still retain many of the elements of small town and rural areas. Though many would recognize some of McCorkle’s “countrypolitan” counties as rural, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget distinguishes them from purely non-metro counties by their economic ties to those major urban centers. These counties, in addition, differ demographically from the state’s rural foundation. In large parts of rural North Carolina, African Americans and Native Americans comprise a sizable portion of the county population. In “countrypolitan” places, whites make up a much larger percentage of the demographic mix.

This makes countrypolitan counties problematic for a Democratic Party that has struggled with North Carolina white voters. In 2020, North Carolina white men voted for Donald Trump by 40 points — a remarkable and deeply shameful spread. Further, white evangelicals have been the backbone of North Carolina Republicanism for 50 years. Countrypolitan counties contain a not insignificant share of the state’s evangelical population, an artifact of their rural past. To sum up, the countrypolitan community provides a formidable ballast for the Republican coalition and an obstacle to sustained Democratic victories. With such a large bloc of the state almost perfectly calibrated to go Republican, Democrats will have to compensate by finding sympathetic caches of votes elsewhere.

Or maybe not. Partially hidden within the red sea of countrypolitanism is an archipelago of deep-blue islands. For example, Gastonia, the county seat of deep-red Gaston County, has elected a Democratic mayor. Beaufort in the gloriously beautiful Crystal Coast region likewise has a Democratic city government helmed by an African-American woman. These Democratic outposts can be found throughout countrypolitan North Carolina, and while each one tends to be smallish, put together they could make the difference between a 50,000-vote loss and a narrow win in a state where almost every major election is decided by 5 points or less.

Surely if Democrats can spend a gaudy $500 million dollars on TV ads trying to persuade voters in the state’s various media markets, they can invest in activating the turnout potential latent in blue countrypolitan outposts. In contrast to the dark days of 2013, the North Carolina Democratic Party does not lack for financial resources today. Democrats can and should engage with left-leaning voters in red-leaning counties, most of which are countrypolitan. This strategy would be a mix of turnout and persuasion, and would seek to add support, vote by vote, to the Democratic side of the ledger until the Dems had their long-elusive majority in the Tar Heel state.

One place where I part company with Salzberg and McCorkle is in their apparent pessimism about the fate of countrypolitan counties as a whole. The two researchers seem to think that countrypolitan counties will remain largely red while hosting small but viable blue outposts. I, however, think this is too pessimistic. In reality, counties like Alamance, Cabarrus, Henderson, and Johnston have incrementally shifted toward the Democrats over recent election cycles. This trend is taking place at a glacial pace. But hope still lives that the exurbs could become like the suburbs, and Democrats could consolidate support all the way to the fringes of metropolitan North Carolina.

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at alex@carolinaforward.org.

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