The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their county was once a bellwether. Now, these Obama-Trump voters wonder what the future holds.

Phillip Stephens, head of the Robeson County GOP, takes down signage while packing up material at the GOP Headquarters in Lumberton, N.C. (Melissa Sue Gerrits for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

LUMBERTON, N.C. — The disaffected Democrats of Robeson County thought they had again foretold the country's future.

On election night, they gathered at a local pizza shop with bigwigs from the Republican National Committee who came to this swing county in this swing state to divine the winner in the contest between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden.

“Trump is winning Robeson County with more than 50 percent,” said Phillip Stephens, a former Democrat who is now the head of the local GOP. “That means he’s going to win North Carolina and he’s going to win the election. We are the bellwether county.”

But polls, probability and bellwethers didn’t do so well in the politics of 2020. And now, a rural county like this one — which gained considerable attention after electing Barack Obama twice, then swinging to Trump in 2016 — had to deal with a newfound reality.

The Biden campaign seized the presidency on the strength of his support in suburban and urban areas, and the country had swung again, this time without them.

Democrats ran up the margins in American cities

“If Trump won again, we’d continue to be the county that showed why blue places turn red,” Stephens said. “With Biden’s win, we are the symbol of the urban-rural divide. A lot of people here wonder what that would mean for us.”

Midway between Miami and Maine, Robeson County had always been cited as both an American exception and an American example. It is exceptionally diverse — a quarter Black, a third White, 40 percent Native American — and the city of Lumberton’s landscape, dotted with rusted silos and closed-down factories, typifies what happened to areas all over the country when factory jobs went overseas.

Job loss and religious conservatism contributed to a practically exclusive Democratic county turning into one in which 55 percent of registered voters are Democrats. In an area so acquainted with abandonment, picking a president gave them a feeling that their county wasn’t so out of sync with the rest of the country.

Residents began to cherish their status as “the last bastion of conservative Democrats,” eager to seize on the political and economic privileges that come with having voters whom high-powered politicians need to woo.

During the Trump presidency, the federal government had approved a plan to widen and raise the interstate in the city, providing an opportunity for more business development. The railroad started to make stops here again. Channing Jones, head of the local chamber of commerce, said they were able to leverage more federal funds to repair damage after Hurricanes Florence and Matthew.

“They saw our numbers, and there’s no doubt that led to politicians garnering more interest,” he said. “We were on different people’s radars. Our name was getting around more and more.”

But most of all, Jones said, the attention breathed new hope that the federal government would push through legislation to finally recognize the Lumbee as a tribe, which would bring an expansion of health care and other federal grants to the area.

“It would be the single-biggest economic driver,” Jones said, and Trump had visited the city in October to promise the Lumbee that he would do it. No sitting president had ever held a formal event in Robeson County before. (There’s a rumor that President William Howard Taft made a whistle-stop here in the 1900s.) The Biden campaign also made a similar promise.

“This is a group that’s been forgotten,” Trump told the crowd, and many believed that if the city continued to choose the right winners for president, they wouldn’t be forgotten again.

So residents such as Gerome Chavis, a community activist and a Lumbee, took time during the campaign’s final days to make phone calls to get out the vote.

He drove his truck around the county to try to sense a change in political winds, but there seemed to be none. Front yards were filled with signs, and Trump’s name was emblazoned on the bumpers of trucks. At the Republican Party’s makeshift headquarters in a local strip mall, volunteers made calls deep into the night before Election Day. Two doors down, the Democratic headquarters closed early.

Chavis joined with the local Republicans at the pizza shop on Election Day, where more than 50 people met up to celebrate the results. As RNC members and Stephens crunched numbers in the county, Chavis mingled with other friends as they watched live coverage. Person after person told the same story of how they had voted for Obama but switched to Trump because they felt someone needed to fight more aggressively to prevent jobs from going abroad.

Chavis told people how his contracting business was doing better than ever during the Trump years and, even with the pandemic, his profits were only slightly behind what they were the year before. Others talked about how glad they were to find a political home with a party that was antiabortion and that struck them as more concerned with the working class than with transgender rights.

They talked about how popular Trump had become with the American Indian community here and about their hope that Robeson could be the model for a nation where race isn’t so intertwined with political affiliation.

Chavis most appreciated Trump’s desire to fight establishment politics. He said he grew up with corrupt, old-boy politics at the local level, and Trump’s bemoaning of a “deep state” of government bureaucrats and insiders helped inspire him to begin speaking up about it.

“His mouth can get him in trouble, but he gets the job done,” Chavis said.

As the group watched Trump pull ahead in Florida and Ohio, then garner close to 60 percent of votes in their county, the members finished up their last slices of pizza and headed home. Trump would ultimately carry the county with 58 percent of the vote.

Chavis went to bed confident that Robeson County had, again, chosen the next president.

But it didn’t. And as Trump began falsely claiming the vote count was stolen from him and his campaign started filing lawsuits over the results, Chavis believed him, because he said he had seen such shenanigans locally.

As Biden’s vote tally continued to climb and Chavis began to lose hope that Trump’s lawsuits would succeed, Chavis watched journalists zoom in on maps of Maricopa County in Arizona — a state in which the Navajo nation also helped push Biden ahead — and of Erie County in Pennsylvania. These were the swing counties that now told the story of the changing America. Robeson County was again a relic of the past.

Arizona’s political transformation began long before Biden was on the ballot

Chavis and other members of the tribe worried their quest for recognition would no longer be a priority if a president did not need their support to win. They didn’t have much hope that a bill would be pushed through the lame-duck session.

“I think it’s over,” Chavis said. “Democrats have promised us before. . . . We got nothing.”

By Friday, Stephens, the county GOP chair, had slipped on a pair of gardening gloves and began to pick up “Trump-Pence” signs that had been staked on the grass near the Republican headquarters.

He wiped some sweat from his brow and walked into a storefront with a large Biden-Harris sign, a bail bondsman’s office that doubled as the campaign headquarters for the local Democrats.

“How are you doing?” he asked the woman sitting inside.

“Oh, I’m wonderful!” Wixie Stephens, who is of no relation, responded.

“Ms. Wixie, stop by and come console me later,” he said half-jokingly. “Congratulations.”

Wixie Stephens, a Democrat, was a newly elected member of the county’s Board of Commissioners. While Chavis compared himself to Trump, Stephens fashioned herself as a “local Stacey Abrams,” eager to build up enthusiasm about voting among Democrats much as the former Georgia candidate for governor did.

Even though she shared a strip mall and a passion for politics and lived in the same hospitable county, it felt as if she and Phillip Stephens — who is White — were living in two different universes these past few years.

Going into Election Day, she noticed Lumberton Democrats, many of whom are African American, were nervous about picking up signs of support for the Biden-Harris ticket. Here, Democrats were the shy voters.

Over the week, as she saw the race tighten after votes came in from cities with large Black populations, Wixie Stephens felt a newfound hope. She was not too concerned with whether local politics reflected the nation; she was more concerned how national issues were reverberating locally.

“They didn’t want to say Black Lives Matter,” Stephens said. “Well, we showed them that Black votes matter!”

Many of the African Americans had begun to fear that Trump’s racist rhetoric had emboldened prejudice in their community.

They saw it in the stares they felt when they walked around — a sense of resurrected condescension from their White and Native American neighbors, even in a community that had long prided itself on its diversity.

Just recently, Chavis, the Republican community activist, posted a recording on his Facebook page of a member of the planning board using the n-word and complaining that Black people were trying to take over local politics. The board removed him from office.

So while Republicans were making calls deep into the night, Wixie Stephens and the Democrats shut up shop and went home.

“I couldn’t even stay here at night because of the fear of white supremacists and racists,” she said.

But she started to feel freer after Biden won the race and especially thrilled that Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) would become the first female and the first Black vice president.

“America has spoken,” Stephens said. “That America is calling for everyone to have an opportunity to be treated like they are somebody. I’m glad Robeson County’s will didn’t prevail. Maybe now we will treat each other better.”

Hours later, after the sun set, Chavis and a dozen others gathered in the parking lot of the local board of elections to make sure they were treated better. The early results showed that a fellow Lumbee, John Earl Cummings Jr., had squeaked past a longtime Democrat who was on the Board of Commissioners by 59 votes.

The margin was so small that Chavis worried the local board of elections could start flipping ballots behind closed doors, reversing the result. So Chavis suggested a group watch the ballot-counting to make sure there was no electoral chicanery.

“We’re tired of it,” Chavis said.

It was largely a way to ensure fairness locally. But the group was also following the frustrations of the president.

Cummings, the commissioner-elect, met them in the parking lot. Before they went in to observe the votes count, the group made a circle and held hands. They bowed their heads and prayed to preserve the sanctity of the electoral process.

“What God does, man cannot take away,” he said. “Don’t say we are here because of a lack of faith. We are here because we still got faith.”