Mountain voters buck statewide trend in Democratic Presidential primary
An interesting anomaly played out in the mountains in the Presidential primary last week.
While Hillary Clinton easily won North Carolina, a swath of 14 counties in the mountains voted for Bernie Sanders. The band of counties in the mountains voting for Sanders runs from Swain to Watauga.
Aside from his mountain sweep, Sanders won only three other scattered counties in the whole state.
Along with his win in 14 mountain counties, Sanders was very close in another six mountain counties — coming within 1 percent of Clinton, often falling short by less than 50 votes.
Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, hypothesized the variation came down to race.
“Nationally, Sanders has done much better in places with smaller African American populations. I think that is what you are seeing,” Cooper said.
Elsewhere in the state, Clinton had an advantage by capturing the African American vote. But that advantage simply didn’t apply in the mountains. To Cooper, the absence of a minority voting bloc seems like the only common denominator in mountain counties where Sanders won compared to the rest of the state where Clinton won.
On one hand, Sanders is more liberal than Clinton. But mountain Democrats are not exactly at the liberal end of their party’s spectrum. So it’s unlikely mountain voters backed Sanders on the grounds of ideology, Cooper said.
“I think it is a more boring story, one of demographics,” Cooper said.
Sanders also does better among younger voters.
But once again, mountain Democrats aren’t exactly younger than their counterparts in the rest of the state. If anything, they are older on average. So that likewise didn’t seem like a logical explanation for why Sanders won so many mountain counties, Cooper said.
To quantify his theory that race was the key variable behind Clinton’s lower performance in the mountains, Cooper graphed the primary results for all 100 counties alongside their African American population.
Consistently, the lower the African American population, the better Sanders did. This even held true in counties where Clinton won, showing larger margins for Clinton in counties with larger African American populations.
Sanders won by the most in Jackson, Buncombe and Watauga. Sanders pulled in 62 percent of the vote in Buncombe, 68.5 percent in Watauga and 57 percent in Jackson — far above his statewide results of just 40 percent of the vote.
Those three counties have all three characteristics of Sanders’ voters. They share the same lower minority population, but also have a younger, more liberal demographic. A testament to their more liberal leanings, Obama did better in Buncombe, Jackson and Watauga in 2012 than anywhere else in the mountains. And they have younger populations than their mountain counterparts — all three are home to universities.
“The anti-establishment messaging and the issues he is focused on resonate with younger people,” Cooper said.
In the Republican presidential primary, mountain voters did not summarily buck the statewide voting pattern, but largely backed Donald Trump over Ted Cruz.
One notable trend was that unaffiliated voters — who can chose which primary they want to vote in — were more likely to chose a Republican ballot at the polls. This doesn’t necessarily mean that unaffiliated voters lean Republican, but is more indicative of the heightened national attention surrounding the Republican presidential primary.
“The Republican race was more interesting and more competitive. People are going to chose the more interesting and competitive ballot if given the choice,” Cooper said.
Democrat Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton
Swain 831 (51.1%) 666 (41%)
Jackson 3,021 (57%) 2,022 (38%)
Haywood 3,883 (46%) 3,762 (44.5%)
Macon 1,428 (44.1%) 1,548 (47.8%)
Statewide 460,507 (40.7% )616,861 (54.6%)
Republican Donald Trump Ted cruz
Swain 621 (46%) 449 (33%)
Jackson 1,624 (39.5%) 1,434 (35%)
Haywood 3,095 (39.8%) 2,964 (38.1%)
Macon 2,870 (45%) 2,004 (31.3%)
Statewide 458,480 (40.2%) 418,978 (36.8%)
* Percentage of votes don’t add up to 100 percent due to other candidates on the ballot garnering a small number of votes.