The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday November 26th

Orange County has voted for a Democrat in every presidential election since 1928

The outspoken Republican senator once famously asked why the state would build a zoo when it could just put a fence around Chapel Hill.

While there is luckily no fence around Chapel Hill today, the area most certainly has a history of voting for Democrats in presidential elections. When asked why Chapel Hill and Orange County have historically voted so liberally, experts came to the same conclusion.

“Because it’s the home of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” said Ferrel Guillory, UNC journalism professor.

UNC history professor Benjamin Waterhouse agreed.

“I suspect there’s a general tendency for places with higher education to have a more liberal political bend,” Waterhouse said. “Throughout the last 100 years, Orange County and Chapel Hill have been very liberal.”

The last recorded instance of Orange County voting for a Republican presidential nominee was 1928, when the county and the state voted for Herbert Hoover.

Matt Hughes, chairperson of the Orange County Democratic Party, said the 1928 election saw a massive anti-Catholic movement in North Carolina.

In 1928, Democratic nominee Al Smith identified as Catholic, and lost to Hoover in an Electoral College landslide.

Liberalism and higher education

Waterhouse said the trend of higher learning institutions attracting more liberal people can be seen throughout the country, not just in Orange County.

“There is a general correlation with advanced degrees and a more liberal leaning,” Waterhouse said. “It’s not an absolute, but a correlation.”

Guillory said UNC’s public status makes a difference.

“As a public university, it’s part of the governmental structure,” he said. “People in institutions see a need for government and vote for like-minded people.”

Daniel Ashley, county chairperson of the Orange County Republican Party, agreed that the University plays a big role in the county’s liberalism, but he said it’s potentially problematic.

“There are conservative students at UNC-Chapel Hill, but if they want to get an ‘A’ in class and all their professors are liberal, how much discussion does that allow them?” Ashley said.

Still, Guillory said Chapel Hill and Orange County have become leaders in progressive and social change for others in the state and the country.

“The presence of UNC in the state has meant a lot to North Carolina’s reputation around the country,” Guillory said. “More progressive forces in the South through the Great Depression and civil rights movement have looked at Chapel Hill as a beacon. While Orange County and Chapel Hill stand out, it’s important to realize how much Chapel Hill has influenced North Carolina’s brand across the South and across the nation.”

A progressive history

Chapel Hill’s historical liberalism goes hand-in-hand with its social progressiveness.

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee agreed.

“In 1966, I tried to buy a house outside of the black section of town,” Lee said. “I had an extremely difficult time finding a realtor who would sell me a house.”

Lee eventually bought the house, and three years later, he was elected as Chapel Hill’s first African-American mayor and the first African-American mayor of a majority white town in the South.

Lee said he was elected mayor mainly due to involvement by students and others who had connections with the University. Lee said it’s the county’s cooperation that makes it so unique.

“This area embodies what communities can do when we can reach across divides to connect with each other,” he said.

For Hughes, the description of Orange County as historically liberal isn’t necessarily correct.

“I wouldn’t say historically liberal, I would say historically democratic,” he said. “Philosophies have ebbed and flowed over the years.”

Lee ran for mayor as a Democrat, but he said party ideology has since changed.

“The Democratic party was controlled by conservative things,” Lee said. “We were progressive, fighting for access to be a part of the party. The party was more conservative back then. It began to take a turn in the early 1970s as more new people moved in, along with more educated people.”

Ashley said there are about 115,000 registered voters in Orange County, including about 18,000 registered Republicans and a growing number of unaffiliated voters.

“They’re the fastest growing segment right now,” Ashley said. “Democrats have lost just as many, if not more people, than Republicans have. It’s the first time they’ve fallen below 50 percent registered Democrats. You’ve got to be unaffiliated to have any say in races because of the way the system is set up.”

Matt Hughes said the number of registered Democrats in Orange County — about 54,000 — has fallen slightly, but he said he’s not worried.

“Two-thirds of unaffiliated voters (in Orange County) vote Democratic,” Hughes said. “Maybe folks just don’t like to be partisan.”

@ryansalch  

city@dailytarheel.com



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