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These are the 4 counties to watch in close North Carolina race for president
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These are the 4 counties to watch in close North Carolina race for president

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Election 2020 Joe Biden (copy)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden is introduced during a campaign event at Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh on Feb. 29. 

One's in the mountains, one's on the coast, and one's in the north central part of the state.

But this trio of North Carolina counties — Jackson, Hyde and Caswell — has something in common that could offer hints about who will win North Carolina in Tuesday's presidential election.

All three are "bellwether" counties.

That is, each of them voted the same way North Carolina as a whole did in the last three presidential elections: For Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, and for Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

It's a record none of the state's 97 other counties can claim.

Jackson, Hyde, Caswell — if the names of these rural counties don't ring a bell, perhaps their claims to Tar Heel fame will.

Jackson County is home to Western Carolina University.

Hyde County includes Ocracoke Island.

And Caswell County is where, in 1839, a slave named Stephen made agricultural history by discovering the "flue-cured" process that produced bright leaf tobacco — North Carolina's signature crop for generations.

With polls suggesting a tight race in North Carolina between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, it's worth taking a closer look at these three counties.

And a fourth one: Robeson County. It's a national bellwether. In the three presidential elections since 2008, it has picked the candidate who ended up winning the White House — Obama, Obama, and Trump.

In 2016, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in North Carolina by 3.6 percentage points — 49.8% to 46.2%. His victory margins were in the double digits in Jackson, Hyde and Caswell. The results in Robeson (50.8% to 46.5%) mirrored the statewide difference.

But that was 2016. Local political experts and party veterans in each of the four bellwether counties told the Observer that, this year, they expect a close race within their borders.

Jackson County

Location: In the mountains, bordering South Carolina and Georgia.

Named for: Andrew Jackson, America's seventh president.

County seat: Sylva

Population: 43,938 (85.2% white; 9.1% Native American; 6.2% Hispanic; 2.4% Black).

Party registration: Democrat-9,509; Republican-8,189; unaffiliated-11,293.

Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains, this county tends to honor its Democratic roots more in local and state elections than in races for the White House. In 2016, ticket-splitters made Jackson one of only four N.C. counties to go for Republican Trump for president and Democrat Roy Cooper for governor.

Unaffiliated voters now outnumber registered Democrats and Republicans in Jackson County, thanks partly to students at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

But the Democrats control the county board of commissioners — they won big in 2018. And Jackson County's sizable Native American community — mostly Cherokees — leans Democratic.

Republicans dominate in the southern part of the county, around Cashiers, a wealthy enclave of second-home owners. Once a familiar face in this area of Jackson: Mark Meadows, a former real estate developer and sandwich shop owner who went on to represent the region in Congress and is now President Trump's chief of staff.

"Put together all these types and you have a very interesting county, politically," said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. "Not that many rural counties are this purple."

Purple as in a blend of Republican red and Democratic blue. Even the university was deemed to be one of the most politically centrist campuses in North Carolina, based on a 2008 poll conducted by CBS News and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The pandemic has hurt some local businesses, especially restaurants and bars. But most of the students have returned to the university and have been voting early at polling places on campus and at the nearby Cullowhee Recreation Center.

Will they go for Biden or Trump?

"My guess is it will be a pretty close split," said Cooper. "Both on campus and in the county."

Hyde County

Location: The coast.

Named for: Edward Hyde, the first colonial governor of North Carolina.

County seat: Swan Quarter.

Population: 4,937 (70.1% white; 26.7% Black; 9.8% Hispanic).

Voter registration: D-1,535; R-574; U-1,020.

Hyde is the state's second smallest county in population and its second largest in size — if you count all the water. Surrounded by the Pamlico Sound and the Alligator and Pungo Rivers, Hyde is home to Lake Mattamuskeet — the largest natural lake in North Carolina.

And to get from the Hyde County mainland to Ocracoke Island, which is also part of the county, requires a two-hour ferry boat ride.

The mainland and the island are also at a distance politically.

"Blue Ocracoke votes Democrat, but Republicans have a red tide in Hyde County," read the headline in the Ocracoke Observer the day after the 2016 election. On the island, Hillary Clinton beat Trump two to one: 318 votes to 158. But countywide, Trump was the easy winner: 1,275 votes to 956.

"There are more Democratic (voters) on Ocracoke, percentage-wise," said Kathy Anderson, a Republican member of the Hyde County Board of Elections. And many of the islanders, she added, are not natives of Hyde County.

The mainland has a lot of registered Democrats, too, Anderson said, "but they don't always vote the Democrat ticket."

Still, locally, members of the county board of commissioners include an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. And African Americans, who make up about a quarter of the county's population, tend to vote Democratic.

In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama carried Hyde County — by 22 votes. (Obama's statewide victory margin was 0.32%).

For most of every year, those on the mainland and the island keep busy with the influx of sports fishermen, bear and duck hunters, and tourists who flock to Ocracoke's beautiful beach and historic lighthouse.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has intruded even in rural Hyde County, with flare-ups at a local nursing home and at the Hyde Correctional Facility. The nearest hospitals are an hour away, in Washington, N.C., and Nags Head.

Like the rest of the state, Hyde County has already started voting. And Anderson said she she's seen about an equal number of Trump and Biden signs around the county.

She won't predict a winner in Hyde.

But she will say this: "I think it'll be close. And I'll be surprised if it's not."

Caswell County

Location: Northern Piedmont, east of Rockingham County, bordering Virginia.

Named for: Richard Caswell, the first governor of North Carolina after U.S. independence from Great Britain.

County seat: Yanceyville.

Population: 22,604 (64.5% white; 32.3% Black; 4.6% Hispanic).

Voter registration: D-6,893; R-3,856; U-4,587.

Yanceyville attorney George Daniel has never given up on the Democratic Party, but many in this rural county he once represented in the N.C. Senate have.

Some of them are now his clients, and he's heard their complaints over the years about how Washington Democrats like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and others "jumped on" tobacco — the crop that once defined this county's economy.

Caswell's textile mills are long gone, too. "They just felt like Washington had forgotten them," Daniel said.

Enter Donald Trump, who in 2016 won Caswell and other rural counties in North Carolina by tapping those feelings of abandonment.

Four years later, Caswell is still looking for a second act for its economy. It's near enough to become a bedroom community for people working in the Triangle, the Triad or Danville, Va., which may soon vote to open a casino. But, for now, Daniel said, they're still trying to get speedy broadband for the whole county, not just a few selected locations.

And Biden vs. Trump?

If the election were decided by the number and size of yard signs, campaign flags and other insignia, Daniel said, "it'd be Trump going away" in Caswell. Those who are for him are really for him.

"I hear it all," Daniel said. "'He's a businessman, he's going to drain the swamp.'"

But some in Caswell fault Trump's handling of the pandemic. And the president's hard line on immigration could endanger the flow of HB2 workers — temporary farm hands from Mexico and other countries — into Caswell.

Though many African Americans have left the county in search of better jobs, Blacks still make up about a third of the county's population and still vote Democratic.

So, it could be close, Daniel said, but there are a lot of Trump signs.

Robeson County

Location: South-central, bordering South Carolina.

Named for: Revolutionary War colonel Thomas Robeson.

County seat: Lumberton

Population: 130,625 (42.3% Native American; 30.6% white; 23.6% Black; 9.2% Hispanic).

Voter registration: D-42,491; R-11,603; U-21,574.

Long a predominantly Democratic county, Robeson voted twice by double digits for Democrat Barack Obama, then narrowly in 2016 for Republican Donald Trump.

The common denominator?

"The message of both Obama and Trump boiled down to economic hope," said Emily Neff-Sharum, who chairs the political science and public administration department at UNC-Pembroke in Robeson County.

That populist promise resonated in a county that's lost many of its factory jobs over the years and where nearly a quarter of the population now lives in poverty.

It also helped Trump that he was running against Hillary Clinton.

"In this county, when they hear 'Clinton,' they hear NAFTA," said Neff-Sharum, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact championed in the 1990s by then-President Bill Clinton and blamed by some for causing a loss of manufacturing jobs. "A lot of the older workers (in Robeson) considered NAFTA an unforgivable move by the federal government."

This year, another issue, one that's been around for more than 100 years, has taken center stage in the battle for votes in Robeson County. Namely, full federal recognition of the Lumbee Tribe, which would bring access to federal health care and money for education.

The Lumbees are North Carolina's largest Native American tribe and are headquartered in Pembroke. The tribe's 55,000 members live mostly in Robeson and surrounding counties.

Biden announced his support early in October for a House bill granting the federal recognition. Trump endorsed a similar bill in the Senate, then came to Robeson County last weekend for a rally to showcase his pledge to fight for the "forgotten men and women" of the Lumbee Tribe.

Also part of the debate and the candidates' bid to one-up each other: The Senate bill would allow the Lumbees to open a casino in Robeson County. The House bill doesn't say whether they could.

There are other issues. Robeson has had one of the highest rate of coronavirus infections in the state. And students at UNCP, joining with Black organizations, have been protesting and pressing the issue of racial justice.

Neff-Sharum also suggested that Biden's choice of running mate Kamala Harris — the daughter of an Indian woman and a Jamaican man — could prove to be a boon to his campaign in a county where "a lot of the community is mixed-race."

The Hill, a Washington-based political news website, recently listed Robeson among "10 bellwether counties that could signal where the election is headed."

"Robeson County on the South Carolina border is one of the country's 'majority-minority' counties, where white residents make up under 50 percent of the population, suggesting it would lean Democrat," The Hill reported, "though it is also rural and low-income and just more than 13 percent of its residents have a college degree, giving Republicans a foothold."

Neff-Sharum's final take on the presidential race in Robeson: "I think it'll be very, very close."

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