As a kid, watching election returns come in for Iowa or New Hampshire, I once asked my Dad why it was that North Carolina held its primary so late.
“Son,” he told me, “We’ve got more important things to worry about January through March.”
His reply made a lot of sense to me then and even more sense to me now. I come from a place where third grade teachers wheel televisions into classrooms so that they and their students can watch the ACC tournament. I pity the politician who tries to hold a campaign rally when basketball is being played on Tobacco Road.
Our fixation on college hoops (and the General Assembly’s decision that May primaries cost less money) generally means that modern presidential nominations are wrapped up long before the race makes its way down I-95. But this year, things are different. For the first time in recent history, North Carolina is being rewarded for its patience. In fact, the Tar Heel state just might wind up deciding this whole Democratic race.
Over the past week or so, a consensus has emerged among the chattering classes. Hillary Clinton will not catch Obama among pledged delegates. He seems to be in a good position to overtake her lead among the superdelegates. And with the moment for a “do-over” in Michigan and Florida seeming to have passed, it will be very difficult for Clinton to overtake Obama’s lead in total popular votes. Right now, the rationale for her continued candidacy seems predicated on surprising Obama somewhere that he should win. Which means that the eyes of the political world are turned to North Carolina.
Longtime observers of NC politics will tell you the state has been in this position before. In 1976, Gov. Ronald Reagan was trying to win the GOP nomination against Gerald Ford — who had become president when Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate. The Californian came into North Carolina having lost the five consecutive primaries. As you’d expect, much of the GOP establishment was lined up behind the president, pressuring Reagan to drop out. That establishment, however, did not count on the state’s new Republican senator. Jesse Helms, who had only won his first election in 1972, threw his Raleigh-based political organization, the National Congressional Club, into the fight for Reagan and pulled off the upset.
The presidential elections of 1972 and 1976 are vitally important to North Carolina political history. In 1972, the state elected a Republican governor (Jim Holshouser) and senator (Helms) — the first of either in the 20th century– and Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 was the last time the state cast its electoral votes for the Democratic presidential candidate. Ever since, North Carolina has been thought of nationally as a GOP stronghold.
In the state, however, the picture is more complicated. President Bush carried 56 percent of the NC vote in each of the last two presidential elections, but that’s actually a reason for optimism. In 2004, in states like Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina, Bush in fact improved on his margin of victory, while in North Carolina he did not. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, since the last presidential election, the number of North Carolinians identifying as Republican has dropped from 35 percent then to just 26 percent today. At nearly every level of government, recent history and current trends favor progressives.
Democrats have held the governor’s mansion for the last 16 years, and only two Republicans have won a North Carolina gubernatorial election since Reconstruction. We expect to keep holding that seat this fall. Democrats currently control both houses of the legislature, and barring some unforeseen disaster, we will maintain our lead or even pick up seats in November. Democrats currently control 7 of North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats, and a school teacher named Larry Kissel is in a good position tol defeat Rep. Robin Hayes in the 8th District this year. Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s approval rating hasn’t moved above 50 percent since polling began for her reelection bid, and under the right circumstances, even she could be in trouble. And yes, the state hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate in 32 years, but recent polling conducted by multiple firms show that both Obama and Clinton stand a chance of beating McCain in 2008.
The fact is that the last three decades have brought dramatic social and economic change to the state. From 1980 to 2006, North Carolina’s population grew by more than 50 percent — from less than 6 million citizens to almost 9 million. Thirty years ago, the leading industries were textiles, furniture, and tobacco. Since then, the economy has expanded and diversified, adding high tech and research jobs in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle, then banking and commerce in Charlotte. In the past five years, the state has added a 20,000 job Dell-computer campus, a massive Google server facility, and a Honda aircraft manufacturing facility. North Carolina is home to the corporate headquarters for GlaxoSmithKlein, Wachovia, and Bank of America. The state maintains a public university system with 16 campuses (including flagship institutions at UNC-CH and NC State), a community college system with nearly 60 campuses, and helps to support elite private universities like Duke and Wake Forest. Charlotte is now a bigger city than Atlanta; Raleigh is bigger than Richmond.
Culturally, demographically, and politically, North Carolina is solid Border South. That means the state’s Democratic primary will have more in common with Virginia or Maryland than with Mississippi or Tennessee.
Since early February, polling has suggested that Barack Obama will win the state. Two weeks ago, his lead was up to 8 points in results calculated by Survey USA. But results of a poll released by NC-based Public Policy Polling (full disclosure — I went to school with the firm’s spokesman, Tom Jensen) on March 19th indicated that voters in the state were having second thoughts in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy; Obama’s lead over Hillary Clinton stood at a single point — 44/43. The interesting thing about that survey, however, is that Clinton’s support didn’t actually increase—the number of undecideds went up, while Obama’s numbers went down. PPP just released from a new poll yesterday, however, with numbers collected after Obama’s speech on race. Given the possibility that this contest will be historic, the firm has expanded its pool of likely voters, and the results tell a completely different story: Obama’s way up, 55/34. The Real Clear Politics poll average still has Obama at +5.4.
North Carolina’s elected officials and political leaders seem to be moving slowly in the Illinois senator’s direction as well. North Carolina has 17 superdelegates, of whom five have made their decisions. Four are supporting Obama, while one is backing Clinton. Clinton and Obama have each sought the endorsement of former Sen. John Edwards, and I’ve heard rumors that he might endorse either or no one at all. I suspect he keeps his opinion to himself. Support from current Gov. Mike Easley, former-Gov. Jim Hunt, or State Senate President Marc Basnight could also have a big impact, but so far, they haven’t been forthcoming either. Both Democratic candidates for governor have endorsed Obama, however, as have the mayors of Durham, Raleigh, Cary, Chapel Hill, Greensboro, Boone, Carrboro, and Asheville. Obama already has the endorsement of one of the state’s members of Congress (Rep. G.K Butterfield), and the others are said to be mulling a decision to announce their support before the primary.
If this were still a race for delegates, Obama would be in great shape. When the NC primary stayed put, even as other states jockeyed for earlier positions, the DNC awarded the state’s Democrats extra votes at the convention. Once Pennsylvania casts its ballot, the Tar Heel state will be the biggest prize left on the map with 134 total delegates available. On May 6th, 77 of those delegates will be awarded based on the voting percentage in each of the 13 congressional districts, and 38 delegates will be distributed based on percentages of popular statewide vote.
In a traditional North Carolina Democratic primary, black voters typically make up just under 30 percent of the total vote. At least one expert has said that this number could go as high as 35 percent, however, in a heated race involving Obama. Recent polling in the state has him winning at least 70 percent of African-American voters, and that’s if he doesn’t outperform the polls, as he’s done recently. Also in Obama’s favor is the broad distribution of black voters. More than half of North Carolina’s congressional district have a population where at least 20 percent of the populace is black. Obama should do particularly well in the 1st, 2nd, 8th, 12th, and 13th, where African-American voters make up more than a quarter of registered voters.
Obama should also do well in the 4th, which is home to UNC, Duke, and NC State — a district that is worth 9 delegates by itself. In fact, I expect that almost all of North Carolina’s 16 public universities will be bastions of Obama support, and again, they are scattered throughout the state, providing his campaign with multiple hot spots to target for votes.
Victories in these areas where the demographics simply add up in his favor should have Obama ahead in a wide swath of the state — from the coast, through the Piedmont, to Charlotte.
Paralleling the patterns of the Virginia primary in February, Clinton has a real advantage in the western part of the state, particularly in older communities in the Appalachians, and it is anyone’s guess as to how much support Obama has in the remaining conservative congressional districts like the 3rd. North Carolina is also home to a fast-growing Hispanic community, making up around 5 percent of the population statewide and closer to 10 percent of possible voters in some areas like the 2nd Congressional District. So far, Hispanics have been a solid Clinton demographic, so if the race tightens up, they could play a very important role. The May 6th primary is semi-open, meaning that only registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters can get a ballot, and that should limit any effort by Republicans to vote for Clinton as a strategic measure to drag out the Democratic primary. There are also contested races all up and down the Democratic ballot — from U.S. senator to governor to lieutenant governor to state treasurer (and that’s saying nothing of state legislature races). Turnout would have been abnormally high for this primary, even without the presidential traveling circus.
Given the advantages that Obama enjoys, it’s completely unclear how seriously Hillary Clinton is taking North Carolina. She has dispatched Ace Smith — the same operative who managed to hold onto Texas — to run her NC operation. Bill Clinton has already made one visit, which coincided with opening round coverage of the NCAA tournament (not the campaign’s best decision). And the senator will tour the state herself on Thursday (again, when the Heels are playing). She’s not going to let Obama run up the score. But two weeks ago, Clinton campaign adviser Harold Ickes took some heat in the state for calling North Carolina ‘irrelevant.’ And Obama has already agreed to have a debate in North Carolina, while Clinton has demurred. To me, that indecision indicates some division in her campaign about the right way to proceed — and there are media reports which confirm that.
Mechanically, unless there is some sort of seismic shift in the current dynamic of the race (bigger than Jeremiah Wright — the results of which, it appears, haven’t done lasting damage to his candidacy), North Carolina favors Obama. But that is exactly why a win here for Clinton would be so dramatic. Given the attitude of the mainstream media, it looks like she won’t have much choice; Clinton will have to go after North Carolina and give it her all. But she seems set to pick up a big win in Pennsylvania, which could set the stage for yet another Clinton comeback. And let’s not discount how much time is left for things to develop. There are still six weeks between now and the day that North Carolina casts its vote. That’s an eternity in this nominating contest.