Statewide Races

Mountain voters buck statewide trend in Democratic Presidential primary

election timeAn 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.

Related Items

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.


Presidential primary

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.

Read 5593 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 29/03/2016

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.