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Does a “100-County Tour” Move the Needle in NC Political Campaigns?

by Kirk O’Steen, NC Chamber Political Director

The “100-County Tour” is a long-standing tradition in North Carolina politics. Just as the name suggests, the tour is completed by holding at least one meeting, rally, or campaign stop in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The tour is usually used to flex a candidate’s campaign prowess and strong connection to grassroots support across the state. For years, candidates from both sides of the aisle have completed this feat. Tradition suggests it is an important marker of a successful campaign, but does it move the needle on election night?

Visiting every county in North Carolina takes months to plan and execute. Many of those county visits might be with just a few local activists. However, even if a candidate manages to shake hands with 100 voters in each of the 100 counties, the total adds up to only 10,000 voters who may or may not show up at the ballot box. For context, the 2020 Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor saw over 740,000 votes cast, and the Democratic primary for the same position saw nearly 1.2 million votes cast. The amount of time and money spent on visiting every county isn’t nearly as efficient as it was in elections past.

Here are  a few recent examples of candidates that visited all 100 counties during their campaign:

Jeff Jackson
In 2021, then-State Senator Jeff Jackson announced that he would hold 100 town halls in 100 counties during his run for US Senate. The twist was that he would complete this listening tour in just 100 days. Jackson completed the tour a week late, but ultimately dropped out of the primary in December of 2021. Jackson instead ran for Congress, where he now serves parts of Mecklenburg and Gaston counties in NC Congressional District 14.

Erica Smith
State Senator Erica Smith also led a 100-county tour in the Summer of 2021 when she campaigned a second time for a US Senate nomination. Ultimately, she dropped out of the race early and chose to pursue NC Congressional District 1, where she was defeated in the Democratic Primary by now-Congressman Don Davis.

Ted Budd
Ted Budd grabbed headlines last year when he did not attend any of the Republican debates for the 2022 US Senate race. When asked why, Budd’s spokesperson said he was focused on finishing his tour of every county in North Carolina. Budd completed his tour in May of 2022 before winning comfortably in the Republican primary and general election.

The Bottom Line
If a 100-county tour is the centerpiece of your statewide campaign strategy, there’s a good chance you will be disappointed on election night.

Visiting every county in North Carolina is an impressive accomplishment and a great opportunity to listen to voters from all corners of the state. However, the record of candidates who have completed this tour is spotty at best.

In the age of social media and digital advertising, the 100-county tour has become a luxury, not a necessity. For new candidates looking to improve their statewide profile, a better first step might be to focus on fundraising instead of an extensive tour across the state. Regardless, my hat goes off to any candidate who has visited all 100 counties. Even if you aren’t planning on running for office, the 100-county tour is a fun bucket list item for any North Carolinian and a wonderful opportunity to see all the small towns, businesses, and parks that make our state great.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of the 100-county tour of North Carolina, check out this article from Brian Murphy.