NC’s High Turnout and Front Row Seat for Democratic Presidential Primary Could Give Obama Chance to Carry the State in the Fall

In the once-in-a-lifetime Democratic presidential primary in North Carolina, with repeated visits by the candidates and former president Bill Clinton to cities and towns that had never seen a president, turnout was heavy. And it seems Senator Obama put together a remarkable coalition that included at least some working class, blue collar whites in urban, suburban and rural voters, as well as an overwhelming number of African Americans and young people.

If Obama can build on this trend in the fall, I wonder if the likely Democratic presidential nominee might win North Carolina in the fall.

Obama won the North Carolina primary in a near landslide, with 56 percent, or 883,480 votes, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 41.6 percent, or 656,371 votes. A total of 1.5 million votes were cast, according to NC State Board of Elections data.

Some 36 percent of registered voters voted statewide. That’s more than twice the 16% who normally turn out for a presidential primary. And many registered independents chose to vote in the Democratic primary, suggesting that Democrats have some chance of carrying North Carolina in the fall.

To do so, Democrats would have to defy historic patterns — George W. Bush won this state with 56% of the vote in 2000 and 2004, and no Democratic presidential nominee has carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. North Carolina went for Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. One has to go back to 1964 — the year of  Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory against Barry Goldwater — to think of North Carolina as part of the “Solid South” that almost always voted Democratic.

Come November, the Democratic nominee will not be able to claim that the Democratic message did not get through to NC voters. Tens of thousands of citizens attended rallies and events, heard directly from the candidates themselves, or their surrogates, and millions of NC voters heard from the candidates through the state’s media.

With NC’s new one-stop early voting law, turnout in the November election is likely to increase by at least 10 percent, and possibly by as much as 30 percent. Early estimates are that nearly 190,000 new voters registered in NC between January and May of 2008. NC voter registration as of primary day was

Democratic: 2,633,381;
Republican: 1,933,658;
Unaffiliated: 1,244,739;
for a total of 5,811,778.

Early exit polls indicate that 40% of Clinton voters say they may vote for McCain instead of Obama in the fall. But exit polls during primaries are notoriously unreliable, as James Stimson, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pointed out to Frank Stasio of WUNC. He also noted that party affiliation is still the best predictor of voting: two-thirds of voters are party loyalists.

What’s exciting for me is that Chatham County is VERY CLOSELY DIVIDED between Democratic and Republican voters in the general election. In 2004, Kerry/Edwards won the county by FIVE VOTES — 12,997 to 12,992 for Bush/Cheney, with 18 for Ralph Nader. West Williams precinct cast 612 for Kerry-Edwards and 462 for Bush-Cheney.

Download 2004votingdata.pdf

In Chatham County, where I live, Obama won 57 percent of the Democratic primary vote, or 8,712 votes, compared to 6,175 for Clinton, or 40% of the vote.

In Chatham County’s West Williams precinct, which includes Fearrington Village where I live, Obama won 455 votes and Hillary Clinton won 294 votes, according to Chatham County election data posted here. Turnout in West Williams was 29.44%, lower than the state average for this primary, but much higher than for usual presidential primaries.

In Chatham County and other parts of North Carolina, Obama appeared to win over some working class white voters as well as some senior citizens and hispanics. Chatham has a lower than average African American population,16.8%, compared to NC as a whole, 21.7%. Yet he won the Chatham precincts of  Pittsboro, East Siler City, Manns Chapel, North Williams, Oakland, Hickory Mountain, Hadley, Three Rivers, and Bynum. Many of these precincts have few African American voters.

He edged out Hillary by 30 votes in the Chatham County senior citizen community of Carolina Meadows, 186 to  156, and beat her in the (mostly) retirement community of Fearrington Village. But these highly educated voters may affiliate more with the university community of Chapel Hill than with their age group, and Obama has overwhelmingly won college towns in almost all of the primaries.

In the fall, it will be especially important for the local Obama campaign in Chatham County to target the precincts that Hillary won:  Albright, Bennett, Bonlee, Harpers Crossroads, and West Siler City.



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