Friday, October 22, 2021

North Carolina is a Long State. And That Matters for Its Politics

 by Christopher Cooper

I was scrolling Twitter this morning and saw at tweet by Henry Gargan (I don’t know him, but from his Twitter account, he seems like a nice and smart fellow. Good bird photographer, too), noting “always a little startled thinking about how much more North Carolina there is West of Asheville.”*


Gargan is, of course, correct. There is indeed a lot of North Carolina past Asheville- hours of it, in fact. There’s a mid-sized university, part of a national park, a portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, 8 counties, a separate nation, a ton of bears, some good flatpickers, terrific whitewater, three NC House districts, two NC Senate districts, and the better part of a congressional district.


People chimed in, as you would expect, with their experiences with far Western North Carolina geography—some commented about how many other state capitals are closer to them than Raleigh, some talked about the length of time from Murphy to Asheville, and one said it’s the same distance from Manteo to Robbinsville as from Robbinsville to Dallas (fact check: not true. But I get the point. It’s a long state).


Perhaps unintentionally, Gardan’s tweet revealed a lot about the importance of political geography for political representation. Distance from the state capital influences  how people think about politics and how they are represented.


Even in today’s hyper-connected age, information about state politics is difficult to find in the far-Western counties. The region’s largest daily newspaper, the Asheville Citizen Times doesn’t have home delivery in most of the far Western counties. Some counties receive local television signals from Tennessee, Georgia, or South Carolina. Just as importantly, the informal networks where people receive cues about state politics (parties, water cooler conversations, and the like) are less connected to state politics as you get farther from the state capital. As a result, studies find that the farther one gets from the state capital, the less people know about state politics.


The choice of candidates for state legislative office also varies as you get farther from the state capital. The reason is simple: it’s easier (and cheaper) to maintain a life at home when your legislative work and home life are close to one another. The “cost” of service in the legislature (whether measured through actual or social costs) is higher if you live in Bryson City than Bethesda. Perhaps for this reason, legislative districts farther from the state capital are less likely to have competitive elections than those closer to the state capital.


It’s not just people farther from the state capital have fewer choices when voting, but the distance also shapes the types of people who choose to run. Research by Political Scientist Rachel Silberman finds that distance has a particularly profound effect on women who might be considering a legislative run—each hour farther away from the state capital equates to about a 7 percentage point reduction in the likelihood that a woman will run for office. So—in North Carolina terms, the odds that a woman will run for office in Robbinsville is about 35 percentage points less likely than in Raleigh.


So, yes, there is a lot of North Carolina West of Asheville. And the distance matters—for the time it takes me to get to the Cat’s Cradle and for the way people in the West are represented.



*I’m a little concerned that by writing a post about NC esoterica that was inspired by a random tweet, that I’m venturing dangerously close to Jeremy Markovich/NC Rabbit Hole territory. I am hoping Jeremy takes this as an “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” moment, not a “Chris is ripping me off. And poorly” moment. I promise not to follow this with any posts about celebrity non-sightings.



Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu