The first attempted settlement of the land that became Dare County came in 1585, when English explorer Ralph Lane established a colony on Roanoke Island. The colony suffered from a lack of supplies and poor relations with the local Secotan People, and the settlers returned to England after less than a year. Another colony at Roanoke was established a year later by another English explorer, John White. After two months, White returned to England for supplies, leaving at least one hundred colonists at Roanoke. He was unable to return to the colony until March 1590 due to hostilities between England and Spain. When he returned, the colonists had seemingly disappeared. To this day, it is unknown what became of the colonists.
Dare County is named for Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. It was created in 1870 from parts of Tyrell, Hyde and Currituck Counties. Since then, tourism has been the dominant industry in the county. Its many beaches and historical sites attract millions annually. The county attracted worldwide attention in 1903 when brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first powered flight with an airplane at Kill Devil Hills.
Political History and Outlook
Presidential Voting History
From the time it was established in 1870 to the late 1890s, Dare County was a swing county in presidential elections, a rarity in what was usually Democratic-leaning eastern North Carolina. After 1896, it began to consistently vote for Democrats like the rest of the region. It would not be until 1956 that a Republican presidential nominee would carry Dare again. It returned to backing Democrats in 1960 and 1964.
The election of 1968 marked a turning point in Dare County. Like many counties in the rural south, large numbers of conservative Democrats abandoned Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey for American Independent candidate George Wallace. The splitting of the Democratic vote allowed Republican Richard Nixon to win the county with just 40% of the vote. Dare County has only voted for a Democratic presidential nominee once since then, in 1976 when it backed native southerner Jimmy Carter.
While Dare has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to compete in at the federal and state level in recent decades, local Democrats have held their ground. The Dare County Board of Commissioners currently consists of five Republicans and two Democrats.
In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 22 points in Dare, an increase from Mitt Romney’s 16-point win in 2012. Trump won all precincts except for the town of Duck. A possible explanation for this is that it has a median age of 63, higher than other nearby towns. While voters over 65 years old are becoming more Republican as the boomer generation gets older, the oldest among this group are historically Democratic-leaning.
At the same time as the presidential race, incumbent Governor Pat McCrory carried Dare by a smaller 14 points, more in-line with Mitt Romney’s win. In addition to winning Duck, Democrat Roy Cooper won the larger resort town of Nags Head.
The gubernatorial race was defined by the infamous “bathroom bill”, which banned transgender people from using public restrooms of the gender they identify with. In recent elections, Dare has shown tendencies to react negatively to culture war issues such as this; in 2012, it was the only county in eastern North Carolina to vote against an amendment to ban same-sex marriage, even as the amendment easily passed statewide. McCrory, who signed the bathroom bill into law, might have lost votes in Dare because of it. He received 10,544 votes compared to Trump’s 11,283.
Further down the ballot is NC House district 6, which contains all of Dare County. There was a competitive race here to succeed a retiring incumbent. Dare County Commissioner Warren Judge was the Democratic nominee for the seat, but passed away just days prior to the election. His name stayed on the ballot and it was agreed that if he were to be elected posthumously, his widow Tess would serve out the two-year term. While he lost district-wide, he won Dare.
Having been a fixture of county politics for more than a decade, Judge’s coalition looked different from Clinton’s or Cooper’s. Instead of Duck being his best precinct, he performed best in the sparsely-populated northern part of Hatteras Island in southern Dare. He also ran far ahead of both on mainland Dare.
Two years later, Tess Judge ran for the district once again. However, the district had been redrawn under court order, making it more Republican. This time, Judge performed better than her husband had in Dare, but still lost the district overall.
Compared to 2016, Judge made the most gains in the more educated northern resort towns, reflecting the national trend of college-educated voters becoming more Democratic.
The Future of Dare County
With the presidential election coming, it seems likely that Donald Trump will carry Dare County again, but by perhaps a smaller margin. According to Census Bureau estimates from 2018, about 33% of the population of Dare County holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, roughly matching the percentage nationally. In addition to a relatively high percentage of college graduates, an above-average 20% of the population is age 65 or older, a group which recent polls have indicated Joe Biden is strong with compared to other recent Democratic nominees. While a Biden win here would be surprising, there are clear signs of a shift beneath the surface of a shifting electorate.