Understanding shifting demographics helps explain how otherwise over-performing outsiders like Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders are so popular. Local and national shifts will influence elections for decades.
Prior to Ronald Reagan, political data was basically two-dimensional. National elections were strategized from the standpoint of Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, men and women, unions and business or any straightforward demographic.
Robeson was always unique in this regard. While national strategists formulated strategies based on whichever two demographics presented the current political challenge, Robeson’s political strategists were always dealing with three.
White, African-American and Native Americans held equal vote shares countywide. No one held a supermajority and nothing got done unless two sides cooperated. Working with three power blocks was common in Robeson. The reason was easy.
In Robeson, all three races agreed on religious issues. Union issues were non-existent. Party politics, social groups, gender and age gaps did not form powerful voting blocks. Everything took a back seat to racial politics, which was simply all that was left to differentiate voting blocks among Democrats, which held the majority. It’s just where voting divisions existed.
By the 1990s, Bill Clinton strategist Dick Morris discussed new political theories of triangulation. But it was far from new to local political strategists. Robeson County politicians had utilized triangulation methods for decades, working within this three-race demographic model. The complex interactions still confuse outsiders.
By the turn of the century, elections were already data driven. This is where Robeson was left behind. The days of putting out a sign and your campaign was done were over.
Today we can tell a lot about individual voters more specifically than large blocks. Rather than two or three dimensions, we can target voters based on how many times they vote, political affiliation, gun owners, church attendees and even who has a subscription to Field and Stream magazine. Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican strategist Mary Matalin used targeting methods in the 1990s. Karl Rove perfected microtargeting further.
Unseen voting blocks began to emerge due to further innovative work of reaching new voters by President Obama’s team, which shattered traditional models of campaigning. Only statistician Nate Silver recognized the seismic shift and predicted 49 out of 50 state presidential races with a unique weighted model. Shifts in younger and minority voting blocks that hadn’t voted in elections and never before targeted by strategists was an untapped voting block of typically unengaged voters.
Today the electorate is shifting along with tactics. Voters now largely prefer not to associate with a political party and predicting who will actually vote has become an art. Actual voters is the only demographic that counts in a campaign.
In 2010, for example, young people dominated registration in D.C., but ended up being the smallest voting group. Failure to vote or engage in politics forfeits your political influence on things that matter. It doesn’t matter who is registered. What matters is who votes.
The same is true in Robeson. There are Lumberton precincts that if mobilized could have decisive effects on city politics. But turnout numbers are abysmal everywhere. Engaging the unengaged voter is a challenge.
Trump and Sanders stay on top because engaged voters are tired of professional politicians and unengaged low-information voters are swayed by popularity. An engaged and educated electorate is important.
Robeson mirrors these trends. Unaffiliated voters are the second largest voting block in the county and tend to vote Republican. A growing aging population and folks with strong religious affiliations vote Republican as well. Women, minorities and young voters, at least nationally, lean Democrat. Mobilizing these groups will decide future campaigns.
The point is politics is now incredibly complex. Being universally poor, Robeson actually has fewer competing interests than most regions. But Robeson is in many ways a barometer for national trends if you know where to look.
Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.