Friday, November 28, 2008


Of all the states Barack Obama won on Election Day, perhaps none surprised the nation more than North Carolina. Remember, this is the same state that, despite predictions of his demise every six years, kept Jesse Helms in the Senate for three decades - including two victories over former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who is black. Two of Mr. Helms’ Republican colleagues - Sens. John East and Lauch Faircloth - joked that their elections made Helms the state’s liberal senator.

Carolina blue, in a presidential election, was not supposed to be Democrat blue.

It started with the environment Republicans faced nationwide. With low approval ratings for President Bush in North Carolina and the nation, John McCain faced considerable headwind. But that in and of itself does not equal victory for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama’s fund raising is already the stuff of legend, swamping Mr. McCain’s total and allowing Mr. Obama the luxury to spend resources where Democratic presidential candidates are not traditionally competitive, such as North Carolina and Indiana.

For Mr. Obama, this meant a near-constant presence on the airwaves. If you watched a North Carolina or East Carolina University football game, you were likely to see at least one Obama ad - each quarter. Newscasts, sitcoms, daytime talk shows and soap operas were blanketed with Obama ads.

Just as important, if not more so, Mr. Obama amassed perhaps the most impressive ground game of any candidate in state history. Unusual for politics, the long divisive primary actually helped Obama.

There’s no question it helped in the Tar Heel state, where blacks comprise nearly a quarter of the population and approximately 40 percent of all registered Democrats.

To identify and target potential voters in the primary, Mr. Obama put a ground team in place early. The primary field structure stayed in place, growing as the campaign entered the post-convention stretch. While the McCain campaign struggled to find enough volunteers in places like Charlotte, the Obama camp pushed up its numbers in Democratic areas and targeted counties where Democrats have traditionally not been competitive at the presidential level. This was especially true with early voting.

Election returns show Mr. Obama’s strength centered in urban counties and those counties in the eastern portion of the state that are home to most of the fabled “Jessecrats,” registered Democrats who routinely supported Mr. Helms and other conservative Republicans.

While Obama surpassing John Kerry’s results in urban areas is not surprising, the numbers with which he did so are staggering. Consider: Durham County, home to Duke University and North Carolina Central University - and a 39 percent black population - gave Mr. Obama a margin of 70,000 votes, compared to Mr. Kerry’s 39,900; Forsyth County, home to Winston-Salem, which Mr. Bush won in 2004 with 54 percent, gave Mr. Obama 55 percent of the vote; Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, gave Mr. Obama a margin just under 100,000 votes, compared to Mr. Kerry’s 12,500 vote margin; Wake County, home to Raleigh, was won by Mr. Bush in 2004 by nearly 7,500 votes. Four years later, the largest county in the state gave Mr. Obama a margin of more than 64,000 votes.

Then there’s the east. Of the 12 counties Mr. Obama turned from red to blue, half were in the east. For example, Cumberland County, home to Fayetteville, Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base and a major visiting spot for both campaigns, went for Mr. Obama with 59 percent.

Mr. Obama even carried Wilson County, a battleground county in the east, besting Mr. Kerry’s total by five points. Anyone who knows North Carolina will tell you, it’s awfully hard for a Republican to win if they fail to carry “Wide Awake” Wilson. In the “sandhills” of southeastern North Carolina, which comprises much of recently defeated Republican Rep. Robin Hayes’ district, Mr. Obama improved on Mr. Kerry’s margin in every county but one. This trend was seen in the northeast, as well.

Two other interesting facts: Mr. Obama improved over Mr. Kerry in every county home to one of North Carolina’s 11 historically black colleges; and despite John Edwards’ presence on the 2004 ticket, his announcing his bid in Moore County and the area serving as an allegory for the Edwards campaign, Mr. Obama outperformed the Kerry-Edwards ticket in Moore County by 10 points.

Regarding the future, one thing is certain, Democrats smell blood. Citing the continued growth of the state and changing demographics, they feel emboldened after Mr. Obama’s victory.

The impact of 2008’s new voters could be negligible. While more than 4.2 million North Carolinians voted for President this cycle - a 21 percent increase from 2004 - those voting only in the presidential contest more than doubled in the same period, from just 63,000 in 2004 to nearly 140,000 voters who did not make any selection in down-ballot races.

It’s clear a large number of voters went to the polls for one reason and one reason only: to vote for Mr. Obama. He won’t be on the ballot in 2010. And in 2012, many of these newly registered voters may stay home, having already made history once.

The 2008 election results let the rest of the nation know what North Carolinians have known for some time: the state is changing. Obama’s candidacy, and his aggressive campaign in the state, sped up recognition of that change (think Virginia in 1998 compared to 2008).

In future races, political observers will have to sit up and look twice; future presidential campaigns may run through Tobacco Road.

Doug Heye, a veteran of political campaigns, served in leading communications positions in the House, Senate and the Bush administrations.

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