Robeson County garnered statewide attention by voting strongly Republican this election. Though Democratic registration has dropped to 67 percent countywide from a high of 92 percent more than a decade ago, every rational indicator has always concluded the county leans Democrat in any race — until now.
Local Republicans pushed unaffiliated registration for years. Though these efforts dropped Democratic registration at twice the state decline of Democratic registration, it matters more how people vote.
Republicans have won county commissioner and state legislature seats in focused precincts friendly to Republicans, which were huge milestones. But Republican Sen.-elect Danny Britt has now broken the glass ceiling, winning a countywide race. Republicans can get elected countywide.
The foundation began with 15 out of 39 precincts that historically vote Republican in federal races while voting Democrat locally. In 2008, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole won five additional Robeson precincts plus to those 15. It was clear 15 to 20 precincts would potentially split their ticket, even in a year when Democrats overwhelmingly voted for Obama. Few noticed.
The original 15 GOP-lean precincts combined with five additional precincts Dole won represented half the county, which was needed for a countywide Republican win to prevail. Republican sheriff’s candidate Randy Hammonds turned a few more precincts in 2014 but fell short countywide without pulling over the other needed 15. Before Hammonds, Republican sheriff’s candidate James Sanderson fell only 2,300 votes short in 1990 when the county was over 90 percent Democrat. For historical perspective, Orrum Constable Rowland Stephens won 1 precinct as a Republican sheriff’s candidate in 1922 when Robeson had 29 precincts and was almost completely Democrat.
Danny Britt was a credible candidate who was able to synthesize previous work with hard work of his own. He won an astounding 28 precincts as a result. Trump, Gov. McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr won the same 72 percent of county precincts.
Data doesn’t support a specific racial or gender profile pushing this surge though the media spins a different narrative without facts. The surge included many variables mutually exclusive of race or gender.
Trump won white votes by the same margin as Romney, for example. Trump performed better among Hispanics and African-Americans than Romney while Hillary didn’t perform as expected with core Democratic groups. Hillary did do better with women, but her margin looked the same as Obama and Romney. Democratic turnout was also down nationwide.
Voter turnout in predominately Democratic precincts mirrored non-presidential election years locally and nationally. But even if presidential election year numbers had been achieved in local Democratic precincts, Republicans still would have won when mathematically correcting for the difference. The margins would have just narrowed.
Lumberton No. 6 cast 252 votes this election. This is consistent with 2014 when this precinct cast 244 in the congressional race, which was a non-presidential year. In the 2012 presidential election this same precinct cast 1,116. We can easily mathematically correct for this lower turnout adding back in presidential year volumes. Even assuming they all would vote Democrat, it only adds around a thousand votes with all corrected precincts totaled, which isn’t enough to change local outcomes. That is true even when not accounting for GOP precinct offsets.
Also it doesn’t factor precincts that didn’t change volume very much, but shifted votes dramatically. A dozen predominately Native American precincts didn’t have lower turnout but voted Republican, accounting for half the county. Enthusiasm for Democrats was simply down this election.
Vote shift was enough to overcome vote turnout. And although turnout changes weren’t significant enough to affect local races, enthusiasm did have a magnified effect nationwide.
Britt won 28 out of 39 precincts, as did other Republicans. That shift couldn’t be overcome. To be fair, it doesn’t mean a 72 percent GOP advantage in every future election. But it does mean a couple of things — Robeson can depend on 20 out of 39 precincts to be competitive, and it also means the Democratic stronghold has been broken and Robeson is now a battleground county.
Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.