Politics & Policy

Obama’s Low-Key Blowout

Inside the North Carolina victory.

Raleigh, N.C.You’ve seen those Barack Obama rallies where thousands and thousands of people are packed into this arena or that stadium. This isn’t one of them. At the rich-in-basketball-history Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of North Carolina State University, Obama is standing roughly where one basket would be, and the crowd ends somewhere between the foul line and half-court. The great majority of the seats are roped off and empty.

On stage, there’s no hoopla. There are no lines of local pols testifying to Obama’s fabulousness, no adorable kids to lead the pledge of allegiance, no nothing, beyond one brief introduction of Obama and wife Michelle. This is, in fact, what it appears to be — a hastily thrown-together gathering, announced at the last minute as Obama kept open the option of a victory celebration in Indiana. When it looked like that wouldn’t happen, he ended up here. In the end, it seems a little small for a celebration of what might be the decisive victory in the long race for the Democratic nomination, but here it is.

In the days leading up to the election, a lot of people in North Carolina sensed momentum for Hillary Clinton. The polls seemed to show a narrowing gap between her and Obama. Bill Clinton was racing like mad through the small towns of the state, giving a hot stump speech to solid crowds in picturesque settings. There was a lot of talk about the possibly negative after-effects of the Rev. Wright controversy. So it appeared that Clinton might make this a closer-than-expected race.

Wrong. At Reynolds Coliseum, the crowd lights up when the big-screen TVs show the networks calling North Carolina for Obama right off the bat. It’s a blowout, with Obama winning by 16-percentage points — more than 230,000 votes. His margin here is bigger than Clinton’s was in Pennsylvania.

As with all of Obama’s victories in the south, it begins with black voters, who are 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, but 34 percent of the Democratic primary electorate tonight. Ninety-one percent of blacks vote for Obama, with just 7 percent for Clinton. To overcome that, Clinton would have had to win well over 70 percent of the white vote, and she came nowhere close. Sixty-one percent of whites voted for her, with 37 percent for Obama. (The results suggest that whites in this southern state are a bit more inclined to vote for the black candidate than in Ohio, where Clinton won among whites 64-34.)

You could see some of the intensity of the African-American vote the night before the election, when Michelle Obama held a get-out-the-vote rally in Charlotte. Nearly 1,000 people came, the overwhelming majority of them black (although the Obama campaign arranged for the group sitting behind Mrs. Obama on stage — the people who would appear with her in head-on camera shots of her speech — to be mostly white). Black voters I talked to there were obviously big Obama fans, but they were also somewhat disgusted with the Clintons, especially Bill.

“I used to like him — he was one of my favorite presidents,” a woman named Clair told me. “But I think this race has brought out something in him that I didn’t know was there, because he started to play the race card.” Clair’s husband, Alan, told me the Clintons “are a little bit desperate now to cling to power.” As for Bill, Alan would only say, “I voted for him when he was president, but he’s different now.”

A woman named Evanda told me she was “really disappointed in Hillary with the lies that she’s coming up with” — she named the Bosnia episode as a real howler — and said the campaign “is going to be a stain on [Bill’s] presidency.” And another woman, Elloree, said of Bill Clinton, “It just goes to show you that a man of his stature — of what I thought was his stature — can stoop so low for power.”

At one point before Mrs. Obama appeared, a speaker asked everyone in the crowd who had already voted to raise his hand. Nearly every hand in the crowd went up. It’s probably fair to say that Obama won North Carolina before the polls even opened.

Here in Reynolds Coliseum, Obama opens his remarks by saying, “You know, some were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election, but today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.” He’s throwing Clinton’s words back at her, but it turns out she was actually right. It just changed the game in his direction, not hers. Obama continues with congratulations for Clinton on her win in Indiana — a win that was in no way assured at the moment Obama spoke. Some in the crowd boo Obama’s somewhat premature concession.

When Clinton spoke in Indianapolis, she also had some words to throw back at her opponent. “Not too long ago my opponent made a prediction. He said Indiana would be the tie breaker. Well tonight, we come from behind, we’ve broken the tie and thanks to you it’s full speed on to the White House.” It sounded brave, but at the time, it was not entirely clear that Clinton had even won Indiana — although she would later eke out a 23,000-vote, 51-49 victory.

The difference for her, narrow as it is, is that black voters make up just 18 percent of the Democratic electorate in Indiana. Obama won 90 percent of them, while Clinton won 60 percent of whites. Demographics gave her the edge.

What was not clear by the end of the night was just how much Clinton intends to fight on. In Indianapolis, she said, “I am running to be the president of all America — north, south, east and west, and everywhere in between. That’s why it is so important that we count the votes of Florida and Michigan.”

“Count the votes!” the crowd begins to chant. “Count the votes! Count the votes!”

“It would be a little strange to have a nominee chosen by 48 states,” Clinton says.

Indeed it would; that is still, as it has always been, a reasonable argument for Clinton to make. But by the end of the night, the conventional wisdom seems set in stone that now, finally, there is not even a sliver of a doubt left that she has lost. She just has to admit it.

But from Clinton’s perspective, in addition to the still-unsettled question of Florida and Michigan, there’s the possibility of running up big popular vote margins in West Virginia, Kentucky, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere, allowing her to unquestionably surpass Obama in popular vote totals. What would all those people who said Democratic superdelegates must follow the will of the people think then?

Late Tuesday night, the Clinton campaign sent out her schedule for the next few days, with no events on Wednesday before she returns to the grueling grind on Thursday, with rallies in Charleston, West Virginia, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Central Point, Oregon. No one would hold it against Clinton for taking a day off the campaign trail, and indeed Obama’s campaign says he will spend the day in Chicago. But a few hours later, the Clinton camp sends out a revised schedule, and, lo and behold, there’s a “Solutions for the American Economy” event on Wednesday in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. At that event, Clinton will undoubtedly tell the crowd that she is not a quitter. As if anyone needed any further proof.


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