It’s this uniqueness, however, that makes Robeson County not so much an outlier as a barometer. For all the headaches that Trump’s overall manner and refusal to concede pose for Republicans and those candidates eyeing House, Senate or presidential bids, he has crafted a sort of template for how the GOP might prevail even without him. Because as Democrats made marked gains with an increasingly multiracial mix of voters in and around the most metropolitan areas, Trump did a version of the same out in the hinterlands—defying the conventional wisdom that rural America is a sprawling demographic dead end of a steadily dwindling swath of less-educated white voters. On the contrary, Trump found ways to juice his support in these places, drawing support from pools of people previously considered all but unreachable for Republicans.
Next to nowhere was this more vividly on display than in Robeson County, where Trump retained the vast majority of the white vote, improved his performance in predominantly Black precincts and all-out romped in Lumbee hotbeds. Trump and his campaign targeted voters regardless of their racial differences with his rural-resonant messages of social conservatism—pro-gun, pro-life, pro-military—and anti-NAFTA broadsides that are catnip for an electorate that blames free trade agreements and globalization for shuttered factories and a sinking standard of living. The campaign also added to the equation a hyperspecific and transactional component: very publicly backing the federal recognition the Lumbee have been seeking since the 1800s. Finally, Trump and his most prominent surrogates kept showing up, a persistence that crested with Trump’s rally in the county seat a week and a half before the election—something no sitting president had ever done here.
The result of those efforts supercharged a trend that area pols say has been building in less conspicuous fashion for going on 20 years. Trump increased his support here in both total votes and percentage more than in any of the other 99 counties in North Carolina. Joe Biden in Robeson actually got four more votes than Hillary Clinton did four years back. But Trump? He got 7,044 more votes than he did in 2016. “It’s one of the more amazing things I’ve seen,” said Tom Eamon, a longtime political scientist at East Carolina University and the author of a book on the political history of the state. And the linchpin was the Lumbee.