The GOP's shrinking margin in the suburbs

Published April 20, 2023

By Thomas Mills

John Hood recently wrote a curious column about the rise of the Republican Party in North Carolina. Much of it is right. The number of registered Democrats has been shrinking continuously for decades. The number of registered Republicans has been growing. However, the shift to unaffiliated is the real story. The GOP controls two-thirds of the state’s county boards of commission and more local offices than at any time in history. In contrast, Democrats control the larger, urban areas in the state. All of this is true and part of the divide happening in the state. 

But then John concludes with a bit of a head scratcher. 

“So, how has North Carolina as a whole become less hospitable to Democratic candidates? Because outside of our urban cores, Republican strength has surged. No, I’m not just talking about rural areas, which taken together represent a declining share of the state’s electorate. The bigger political story is the rapid increase of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in fast-growing suburban and exurban counties such as Union, Iredell, Cabarrus, Gaston, Johnston, Franklin, Harnett, Alamance, Brunswick, and Pender.”

Had John written this a decade ago, he would be right, but, today, the shift of most of the suburban counties he mentioned is what gives Democrats hope. While Pender and Brunswick are growing more Republican due to the influx of wealthy retirees who care about low taxes and low crime and could not care less about public education or improved infrastructure, the other counties are mostly shifting toward Democrats. The growth in exurban counties around Charlotte and Raleigh is coming from a younger, educated, and diverse population. They are slowly, but surely turning the state blue. 

Cabarrus, one of the state’s fastest growing counties, gave George Bush a 35-point margin over John Kerry in 2004. That was the peak. The GOP margin has shrunk every election cycle since. In 2020, Trump carried it by nine points and the number of voters doubled over the sixteen year period. In 2022, Democrats picked up a state house seat there for the first time in ages. 

Alamance tells a similar story. Bush carried the county by 23 points in 2004. Trump carried it by eight-points. Alamance also elected Democrat Ricky Hurtado in 2020, the first Latino to serve in the legislature. 

In Harnett, the margin shrunk from 29 points for Bush to 23 points for Trump.  In Gaston, Bush won by 36 and Trump by 28. In Johnston, the GOP margin shrunk from 36 in 2004 to 24 in 2020. In Union, Bush had a whopping 41 point margin in 2004, but by 2020, Trump’s margin was 24. Iredell is the only county where Republicans have not seen a substantially shrinking margin. Bush won it by 36 and Trump by 32. 

While John may be right that the suburban counties helped the GOP gain a majority, the Republican’s strength has been waning, not increasing, since its peak in 2004. The newcomers who moved to those areas in the 1990s and early 2000s are shifting their priorities. They may have come for the low taxes and lack of unions, but now they are increasingly concerned about the quality of our public schools and access to high speed internet. If these trends continue, Alamance and Cabarrus will become battleground counties over the next few presidential election cycles and most of the other counties will be much more competitive. 

John’s wrong. Republican strength in the state is not due of the GOP strength in suburbs. It’s  dependent on the outsized turnout and margins in rural, mostly white counties. They’ve increased their margins among resentment voters who were outraged at the election of Barack Obama and believe Donald Trump is a savior, immigrants are taking their jobs, and Democrats are coming for their guns. Those voters live in shrinking counties while most Democrats, as John correctly pointed out, are in the dynamic urban areas that are adding far more people to the state’s population and who are giving Democrats increasing margins in their counties. Democrats don’t need to win those suburban counties outright. They just need to keep slowly increasing their margins while younger, more educated, and more diverse voters replace older, more conservative, rural ones.