NC: The Closer
By Al Giordano
"In this country, justice can be won against the greatest of odds; hope can find its way back to the darkest of corners; and when we are told that we cannot bring about the change that we seek, we answer with one voice - yes, we can."
- Barack Obama, Raleigh, North Carolina, May 6, 2008
WILLIAMSTON, NORTH CAROLINA; OCTOBER 10, 2004 2008: Five short months ago, on the night of May 6, the voters of North Carolina effectively ended the Democratic presidential nomination battle, deciding it definitively in favor of Barack Obama. As Cronkite used to say, "and you were there." (And if perchance you weren't, the video, above, will put you right back there.)
The Field has listened to all the talk of Obama possibly winning North Carolina and its 15 Electoral Votes with a healthy dose of skepticism, but also with great curiosity (which is why we added it to our swing state reporting tour when it was only number 15 among 538's "tipping point" states - it's now number seven). Remember that, in 2004, Republican George W. Bush won 1,961,166 votes here (56 percent) to just 1,525,849 for Democrat John Kerry.
And while there are more than 600,000 newly registered voters in North Carolina this year, Obama would have to win about 92 percent of them to make up that 435,317 vote deficit.
No. To win in North Carolina, Obama has to bring a significant number of people that voted for Bush four years ago into the Democratic column.
Add to that seemingly unlikely equation that Kerry had John Edwards - a North Carolinian - as his running mate, and that a large chunk of the state's voters are in the mountains or foothills of Appalachia (where Obama has struggled all year), and if past is prologue McCain - on paper - should win some number of Kerry-Edwards voters and thus carry North Carolina safely.
I mean, just look at how "red" this state was just four years ago:
In other words, a lot of "red" and "light red" counties that voted Republican in the last presidential contest, some of the unshaded counties virtually tied, but very few "blue" Democratic counties in 2004.
And yet the aggregate of polls out of North Carolina has showed Obama inching up and, this week, taking a narrow lead with 47.8 percent to 47.1 percent for McCain (and that means there's only 5.1 percent either uncommitted or voting for a third-party candidate).
So what's going on here?
Our first clue, shortly after entering the state from Tennessee, was when 26,000 people tried to attend Obama's appearance in Asheville last Sunday. This was not your father's Appalachia. The crowd reminded The Field more of those that hang in liberal rural Meccas a short distance from New York City; say, Woodstock, New York or New Hope, Pennsylvania, or even Vermont: Small Town Upwardly Mobile Professionals (or "Stumpies" as we used to call them!).
Bush had narrowly won Buncombe County (where Asheville is county seat, out in the west in the Eleventh Congressional district) four years ago, by 623 votes out of more than 100,000 that were cast.
Last weekend, in Asheville, I met Russell Johnson, a veteran of the first Gulf War. He walks with the help of a cane. He told The Field that he had registered 140 new voters himself. Another Obama volunteer who is in-the-know whispered to me that the Buncombe County campaign celebrated that it had hit the 10,000 mark in new voter registrations two weeks prior. There's no question that Obama is turning this county - the largest in Western North Carolina - blue this year.
The same will happen in rural Swain county where Bush won by just 173 votes last time (and where the Obama campaign has one of its 47 field offices). And Obama may well take Jackson county (Bush 52 percent, Kerry 48) and Yancey County (Bush 52, Kerry 47). And although local organizers report that there are some Democrats that won't vote for Obama this time - the most pessimistic view shared was that they could be as many as five percent of the voters in the western hills - the newly registered voters, mainly pro-Obama, will likely outnumber them significantly enough to exceed 2004 Democratic totals from the region.
To get an idea of where Obama's potential for growth over the Kerry-Edwards totals in '04 is greatest in the state, the primary map is helpful (dark blue represents counties won by Obama, light blue, by Senator Clinton):
As we move West to East the map gets bluer. (You can use the map interactively at CNN.com and see the local primary results by waving your cursor over each county.)
In the mid-section of the state are three distinct metropolitan regions where, combined, slightly over half the population of the state live and vote:
- Greater Charlotte (part of a bi-state region known as Metrolina, whose urban center lies in Mecklenburg County), with 1.7 million residents on the North Carolina side;
- The Piedmont Triad (Forsyth County includes the city of Winston-Salem, and Guilford County, the cities of Greensboro and High Point) has 1.5 million residents, and;
- The "Research Triangle" of Durham (Durham County), Raleigh (Wake County), and Chapel Hill (Durham and Orange Counties), with 1.3 million residents.
These regions each have large African-American populations in the range of twenty to forty percent in given areas, and, significantly for Obama's chances, large segments of the Caucasian populations there came to these lands to fill white collar jobs in the banking, finance, tobacco and high tech industries, and to work, teach or study at research universities.
Durham County (where Obama received 76 percent of the primary vote) is famously liberal and upscale among its younger, upwardly mobile, white-collar population. Down the road, heading into Raleigh, you're greeted by a Whole Foods supermarket and a Bruegger's Bagel's franchise. They're in the two dark blue counties from the 2004 results map, above, are Durham and Wake Orange counties. If there's support for McCain-Palin around there, it's not very noticeable. Evidence of Obama support is everywhere. Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is Obama Country.
But it's in Greater Charlotte and Piedmont where the votes are measurably switching from Bush '04 to Obama '08: Charlotte is home to the Bank of America and the carcass of Wachovia Bank (just bought out by Wells Fargo, a casualty the current economic crisis), plus 23 more of the Fortune 500 companies. It is second to New York as a financial capital.
The same deep worry that today afflicts financial professionals in Manhattan hangs heavily not only over Charlotte and its suburbs, but also Winston-Salem, where the old Wachovia Bank building shadowed surprisingly empty streets on a random weekday lunch hour earlier this week. Winston-Salem is home to its own share of international corporations from RJ Reynolds tobacco to Lowes Foods to Krispy Kreme donuts.
And the professional class here is, in two words, freaked out over the current economic tailspin.
Take Hugh McColl Jr., former CEO of Bank of America, who penned a column last week in the Charlotte Observer:
In 49 years of living in Charlotte, I've seldom offered my opinion in writing and never submitted a piece such as this. The condition of our country compels me.
The economic disarray threatening our community and nation poses critical challenges but also presents opportunity. We can observe the presidential candidates in the crucible of crisis.
Only one of them demonstrates the needed intellect, fortitude and temperament. That is why I have decided to publicly support Barack Obama.
This is the mirror image of opinion in the financial sector of New York, as stated by stock market guru James Cramer, who writes, "Obama is a recession. McCain is a depression":
Wall Street usually favors Republicans when it comes to managing the economy, but this time around the financial community is skeptical. John McCain has done everything he can to avoid talking about the economy, lest he be tarred with the brush of George Bush's ineptitude. And when McCain has attempted to step into the fray, he's been far from reassuring. First, he insisted that the fundamentals of the economy were sound; then he turned around and told us it was the end of the economic world as we know it, and suspended his campaign to scramble back to Washington and save the day on the bailout bill-only to have little visible effect. For all his talk of being a maverick, McCain looks an awful lot like President Bush on the credit crisis: He doesn't seem to understand Wall Street or Main Street, he is dogmatically anti-regulation, and his economic team is a joke. Carly Fiorina almost destroyed the onetime best technology company in America, Hewlett-Packard, and Meg Whitman took eBay, the best dot-com player, and turned it into a mediocre franchise that has no growth. Both are perceived by Wall Street to be also-rans who are on the team because they have nothing else to do.
"Middle class voters," says Gary Pearse, one of the state's top Democratic political consultants, "are scared to death about the economy."
These are the people who have 401ks and they will receive, with much dread, their quarterly statements around October 15 telling them just how much they have lost (so far, an average of 40 percent) in recent weeks. They're also a lot of the people who own stock and seen its value fall similarly. Many of them came from other places to fill corporate jobs in North Carolina, in many cases they've discarded their roots to the places they came from and can't imagine themselves going back there if they lose these high paying jobs.
Those folks voted for Bush in '04 but are deserting McCain in droves; and that's what's showing up on the recent polls to flip the advantage from the GOP to the Democrats this year.
Add to all those aforementioned factors the palpable intensity in the African-American community (which new voter registration has expanded from 20 percent of the North Carolina vote to 21.5 percent; you can add that as an extra 1.5 percent to Obama's tally on November 4, because most pollsters aren't weighting it sufficiently).
But as State Representative Dan Blue (D-Raleigh), a former Speaker of the House, tells The Field, there are four possible scenarios for the African-American vote on Election Day:
1. That the African-American vote, which traditionally turns out four to six percent below average turnout among other voting groups, will under-perform again.
2. That the African-American vote will, this year, equal its percentage of registered voters (21.5 percent).
3. That the African-American vote will rise to the level of its percentage of the population at large (22 percent, in the 2000 census).
4. That African-American turnout will "knock the socks off" the election results and change the game altogether.
"We've been aiming for number three," says Blue. "But I'm getting the sense and feeling that everybody has a stake in this election and that turnout will be much heavier than normal."
The Field saw that excitement t hroughout the many regions of the state where African-Americans live and work. Whenever I mentioned being a national political reporter here to cover the presidential campaign, so many of these citizens wanted to talk. They also wanted to hear whatever I had learned not only in their own state, but in the other swing states we've visited. It takes no push at all to invite that excitement, curiosity and the eagerness to talk about it. One afternoon, driving through Durham, stopped at a traffic light, I saw a group of African-American women pointing at me, smiling and apparently talking about the guy behind the wheel. I wondered whether I had suddenly become handsome, or something. Then I realized: I had been listening to the Potus 08 network on XM radio and its live broadcast of Joe Biden's speech that day in Florida, and perhaps I had the volume up a bit high.
The Field headed from the western and central parts of the state into Eastern North Carolina, to the same town of Greenville that Governor Palin had visited last Tuesday. Outside of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, a duo was found at a table to register voters. "Tomorrow's the last day to register to vote," Kathy Walker informed a passerby. "Hey, brother, you already registered?" added Reggie Price.
A Latino man approached the table, "I've got to change my address."
A heavyset white woman, 39, heading into the supermarket proclaimed, "I don't vote." On her way out, Price reached out to her: "It'll only take a minute. I'll fill it out for you. You'll feel real good. Look what's going on in this country!" He had her. She signed up to vote, smiling.
Unlike in many of the other regions of the state, this supermarket parking lot did not have a lot of brand spanking new automobiles. A few that drove in and out didn't seem to have mufflers. Walker told The Field that she had signed up 13 new voters in her first two hours there. She and Price didn't have to make a hard sell: people were lined up, sometimes two or three deep, either to register or boast that they already had and to talk or ask about how the campaign was going. "Yesterday, I registered 52 voters at the Community College," Wal ker explained. "This is the best part of volunteering."
From there I drove a half hour through cotton and soybean fields to Williamston. In the rural areas outside of these small cities, the population is predominantly white and poor. Many a barn had caved in, and the landscape is dotted with boarded up homes, some completely covered with a vine that I presumed is kudzu, but being a northerner am not certain... Towns like Bear Grass (population 53). This is not the fast growing area of the state: it's losing it's young people and for every woman there are .76 men (the other quarter of them left to seek work elsewhere).
I pulled into the small city of Williamston, and walked into the New Beginnings Beauty Salon, festooned with Obama posters, across West Main Street from three vacant storefronts and a Salvation Army thrift shop, where Lois Greene was volunteering at a voter registration table.
"I turned in 40 completed forms this morning," she beamed. "We got nine more today. That's about average."
In walked Maggie Williams - Miss Maggie, to the locals - the owner of the beauty shop. The Obama campaign has mobilized hair salons, like hers, and barber shops across the state as "staging areas" for its voter registration drives in rural predominantly African-American towns like this one.
Since August, a local Obama staffer has organized Saturday canvasses in three shifts to go door to door in these towns. "I've lived in Williamston all my life," Greene said. "While canvassing, I found myself in places I hadn't seen for twenty years. Sure, we had some doors slammed in our faces. But we also found some ‘Yellow Dog Democrats' - I just learned that term - who vote for the Democrat no matter who it is!"
These small towns have had debate-watch parties and Democratic Convention-watch events and are now gearing up for "One-Stop Early Voting," beginning on October 16 through November 1, when, although the deadline passed today for changing one's voting address in the same county, new arrivals or the unregistered can sign up to vote and vote all in the same step.
Lois Greene is a co-chief for the local Obama "change crew." Every change crew is given weekly goals (number of new voters, number of door to door contacts, number of phone bank contacts) and reports in each day with the numbers. The local staff organizer meets with each change crew chief at least once a week to set the following week's action plan. Under the change crew chiefs are phone bank captains (responsible for two to three phone bank shifts a week), canvass captains (running one to two door to door canvass drives per week, and trained to train the volunteer canvassers) and voter registration captains. All of them, volunteers, are schooled in how to frame the campaign messages and carry out the "pre-planning" of all activities in advance. "All volunteers must be trained before they start calling," reads a six page internal memo obtained by The Field. There's no need to get into the whole document here, but suffice to say, this is the best organized campaign this political reporter has ever seen, and its clear that what's written on paper is implemented in real life.
At the end of the day on Thursday, The Field conducted an unannounced "inspection" of the regional Obama office in Greenville, to which the local organizers report each day. It was 8:30 p.m., the close of phone banking hours, and the headquarters was a beehive of activity with phone-bankers ending their shift and change crew chiefs bringing in the day's tallies. More than 250 newly filled voter registration forms sat atop an organizer's desk. After phone banking, the organizers then get on a regional conference call with statewide organizers to report the day's numerical progress (new voters, phone contacts, canvass contacts, etcetera). It took the local organizers until after 10 p.m. to finish their daily tasks.
Alright. Okay. I get it. This isn't just a political campaign. It's a steamroller. This is why North Carolina really is in play. And the excitement in this state - from West to East - is the highest and the hungriest among the five states we visited in the past two weeks.
As Representative Dan Blue told The Field: "We're definitely in play. If I had to make the call, I believe we're going to win it."
"Just like in the primary," he concluded, "when we were ready for the nomination fight to be over and we ended it. North Carolina is ready to make this entire election be over."
In other words, North Carolina - if all these great works come to fruition - could become, early on Election Night, the closer. Because if Obama wins here, it means he probably just won Virginia, too, and the Electoral College math then becomes impossible for McCain to overcome anywhere else that's still in play.