Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Counties to Watch in the 2024 North Carolina General Election

By Christopher Cooper

Whether you want to call it a purple, swingy, battleground or competitive state, it is increasingly clear that North Carolina is the short-list of states that matter in the 2024 Presidential election. President Biden and Vice President Harris have visited North Carolina so often that state media are reporting about their favorite Cook-Out orders

For his part, Donald Trump has visited the state recently and, perhaps just as importantly, successfully advocated for former North Carolina GOP Chair Michael Whatley to become head of the Republican National Committee (along with North Carolina native Lara Trump). 

Then there's North Carolina's gubernatorial race, which is expected to be the most expensive, most watched, and most competitive in the country. The North Carolina Attorney General Race is going to draw more than the average number of eyeballs. Even the Superintendent of Public Instruction race is on the national radar

All this is to say: North Carolina matters.

But, as anyone has has ever attempted to order Eastern Barbecue West of Lexington knows, the state is not a monolith. Some counties in North Carolina prefer the tomato based sauce in the West and some prefer the vinegar based sauce in the East. And, more to the point of this blog, some counties lean heavily towards the Republican Party, and some towards the Democratic Party. A very few fall in that murky middle where political preferences are less clear. 

So, where is that murky middle? Where should political observers turn their attention in 2024?

Top of the Ticket Inter-Election Swings

One way to think about the counties that matter is to look at the counties that flipped partisan allegiances from one election to the next. I refer these as inter-election (meaning between election) swing counties. As I demonstrate in my forthcoming book, Anatomy of a Purple State (available for pre-order), inter-election swing counties used to be the norm, rather than the exception. Between 1972 and 1976, 83 of North Carolina's 100 counties changed partisan allegiance in their vote for President. From 2016 to 2020, that number had dropped to three--New Hanover, Nash, and Scotland Counties. 

Examining inter-election gubernatorial swings also reveals three swingy counties, albeit a different three. The majority of voters in Lenoir and Martin cast their votes for Republican Pat McCrory in 2016 and Democrat Roy Cooper in 2020. My home county of Jackson was the sole county that flipped their partisan allegiance from Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016 to Republican Dan Forest in 2020.

So, that gives us six counties in the running for swing county to watch. See the map colored in by my daughter for more details.

Inter-Election Swing Counties in North Carolina

Top of the Ticket Intra-Election Swings

A different way to think about the same idea is to look for what I call intra-election (within election) swing counties--counties that gave the majority of their votes to the candidate from one party for President and another party for Governor in the 2020 election.

No county supported both Joe Biden (the Democratic Party candidate for President) and Dan Forest (the Republican candidate for Governor). Four counties, however, gave the majority of their votes to Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Roy Cooper (Granville, Lenoir, Martin, and Scotland). See the map colored in by my daughter below for more details.

Intra-Election Swing Counties in North Carolina

Purple Counties 

A third way to find the counties to watch is to put aside winners and losers for a minute and just pay attention to the counties with the smallest margins of victory at the top of the ticket. This approach has some logic in its favor. After all, there is no electoral college for counties, so if you want to understand which counties are the most competitive, perhaps the best way to do so is to calculate how close each county was in the last election.

So, that's what I did.

The 10 closest counties (5 which cast the majority of their votes for President for Trump and 5 for Biden) were Alamance, Granville, Jackson, Lenoir, Martin, Nash, New Hanover, Pasquotank, Scotland, and Wilson. See the map colored in by my daughter below for more details.

Purple Counties in North Carolina

Putting it All Together

The table below shows the counties for each of the three measures. As you can see, there is a good bit of crossover across the three lists. Every county except Pasquotank and Wilson appear on at least two lists. Lenoir, Martin, and Scotland counties appear on all three. If you're looking for a short-list of counties to watch, the counties in this table (particularly those that appear more than once) can provide a good starting point.

Enough with the Lists, Chris--Just Give Me One County

If you're looking for a short-list of counties to watch, the ones above are a good start. But, let's say you need one county to pay attention to. My advice would be to head to the coast and spend some time in New Hanover County.

New Hanover is an interesting--some might argue schizophrenic--place politically. As described above, it gave the majority of its votes to Donald Trump in 2016 and to Joe Biden in 2020. And it gets swinger from there. 

Consider the Council of State contests. The majority of voters in New Hanover county cast their votes for--get this--the Democratic candidates for Governor, Attorney General, Auditor, and Secretary of State, and the Republican candidates for Lieutenant Governor, Agriculture, Insurance, Public Instruction and Treasurer. They picked the winning candidate in every council of state except Labor! 

In 2022, they supported Democrat Cheri Beasley for Senate and Republican David Rouzer for Congress. 

Even the local races are swingy. In 2022, there were two seats up on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. And, you guessed it--one of those seats went to a Republican and the other to a Democrat.

New Hanover County is a pretty good microcosm of North Carolina politics. It's as close to a bellwether as we've got.

And the views aren't bad, either. 

File:Sunrise on the Wrightsville Beach.jpg


Dr. Christopher Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs and Director of the Haire Institute for Public Policy at Western Carolina University; he posts to social media at @chriscooperwcu.