Trump/Cooper counties are key to victory in 2024

Published February 1, 2024

By Dallas Woodhouse

North Carolina Republicans desperately want to break the Democrats’ hold on the Governor’s Mansion and other key Council of State races including the important Attorney General’s race. Democrats are hoping to keep these and expand their success. For either side to achieve their goals in 2024, they must improve vote totals in counties that were won by Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper in 2020 but were also won by Republican President Trump in 2020 and/or Republican Ted Budd for US Senate in 2022 — call them “Trump/Cooper voters.”

After beating incumbent Pat McCrory in 2016 by 11,000 votes out of 4.6 million cast (0.22%), Cooper scored a relatively comfortable 51.5% to 47% win over then Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in 2020.

We have noted that one of the key 2024 NC Political questions is, “What will Trump/Cooper voters do?” Trump won NC by 1.3%, and Cooper was re-elected as governor 51-47%. This means roughly 5-6% of voters split their tickets at the top, a common formula for Democrat dominance in races for the Governor’s Mansion over the last half century. Many of those Trump/Cooper voters cast ballots for Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson too. How these voters lean in the governor’s race and other statewide races is likely to be the deciding factor.

These are the nine key counties where this dynamic will be in play:

Nash and Wilson counties: 

These two counties are pretty good at cultivating future Democratic governors. Many winning governors have come from these two rural eastern North Carolina counties that hug Interstate 95, like:

  • Jim Hunt: 1976-1984 & 1992-2000 (Wilson County)  
  • Mike Easley: 2000-2008 (Nash County)  
  • Roy Cooper: 2016-2024 (Nash County) 

Democrats will likely nominate Attorney General Josh Stein from Orange/Wake County for governor, in a break from picking eastern North Carolina Democrats for governor. Will Stein change the winning formula for Democrats? These two counties will be key.

We have previously noted the importance of Nash County this year. Nash has been closely divided for some time. In 2016, President Donald Trump won the county, with just 84 more votes than Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Nash was one of only two counties that Trump won in 2016 but lost in 2020. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden came out ahead in Nash County by just 49 votes. 

Since that time, the county has seemed to move red.  

Republican Ted Budd beat Democrat Cherie Beasley for US Senate 53% to 46%, as all the key races in Nash went red in 2022.

Nash 2020

  • Joe Biden (D) 49.6 % over Donald Trump (R) 49.1 %
  • Roy Cooper (D) 53 % over Dan Forest (R) 46%

Nash 2022

  • Ted Budd (R) 52% over Cheri Beasley (D) 45%

Wilson 2020

  • Joe Biden (D) 51% over Donald Trump (R) 48%
  • Roy Cooper (D) 54 % over Dan Forest (R) 44%

Wilson  2022

  • Ted Budd (R) 50% over Cheri Beasley (D)  47%

Scotland and Anson counties:

Scotland County and neighboring Anson County is an area where the GOP has made some recent gains. Scotland is one of the only counties that voted for Hillary Clinton (53-43) in 2016 and switched to Trump in 2020.

Scotland 2020

Donald Trump (R) 50% over Joe Biden (D) 48%

Roy Cooper (D) 52 % over Dan Forest (R) 46%

Scotland 2022

Ted Budd (R)  52% over Cheri Beasley (D) 46%

It is important to note that these are small counties with small overall populations. Scotland only had 15,000 voters. Republican Mark Robinson won the county with 436 more votes for lieutenant governor than Dan Forest received in losing Scotland. Its not much, but for the GOP to win the Governor’s Mansion they will need to pick up these potentially available 300-500 votes.

Anson County has normally been a Democratic stronghold. In 2016 and 2020 it elected Democrats across the entire ballot. However Ted Budd won 51-46 in 2022. Is this a trend or a mid-term election blip?

Granville County:

Granville is just north of Raleigh, with towns like Oxford and Creedmoor. Ted Budd won in 2022 53-45 % for a net plus of 1,820 votes over Beasley. Trump won 2020 by a similar percentage, with a net plus of 2,000 votes over Biden.  However, Roy Cooper won the county in 2020 by 345 votes.

Lenior,Martin, and Pasquotank counties: 

These three are all small counties in eastern North Carolina that have split the top of the ticket in recent elections.

Pasquotank: Joe Biden won by 62 votes out of nearly 20,000 cast in 2020. Roy Cooper bagged a 612 vote victory that year. However Ted Budd picked up a 836-vote victory two years later with 6,000 fewer votes cast.

Martin: Another extremely small county. Less than 9,000 votes cast in 2022, in which Budd won by 876. Trump won by 621 in 2020, but Roy Cooper also won by 123 votes.  

Lenoir: There were only 28,000 votes cast in 2020, and Trump won by 985. Cooper also won, but by 302. Budd in 2022, won by 2,580.

New Hanover County:

We put this county in a slightly different category. New Hanover is North Carolina’s largest swing county. One of only two counties that voted Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. In 2020, New Hanover County flipped Democratic after voting Republican in the previous five presidential elections.

In total, 66,138 people in New Hanover voted for Biden, with 63,331 voting for Trump. So 50.2% of the people voted for the Democrat, 48.0% voted for the Republican, and the remaining 1.8% voted for another candidate.

Not only was New Hanover one of two counties that flipped from red to blue from 2016 to 2020, but it is also one of two North Carolina counties that was red in 2008, Obama’s successful run in North Carolina, and blue in 2020. 

In 2020, New Hanover split across several major races. Democrat US Senate candidate Cal Cunningham bested Senator Thom Tillis by 287 votes or 0.22%. 

While Republican US Rep. David Rouser won New Hanover 51% to 48%, the county also voted for Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper (53%) over GOP nominee Dan Forest’s 45%. Budd lost in 2022 49-47% for a net loss to Beasley by 1,773 votes.

Performing better in these mostly small counties will not guarantee victory on a statewide basis for either party. However, it will be an important piece of the puzzle.