Politics & Policy

Tar-Heel Uncertainty

I haven't the foggiest notion of what's going to happen.

Raleigh, N.C. – The questions kept coming all weekend. Will Barack Obama beat the current seven-point spread in North Carolina’s primary? Can Hillary Clinton somehow pull a game-changing upset? Will turnout meet the record-shattering projections? And within North Carolina, how will the Democratic contest affect gubernatorial primaries and other elections down the ballot?

When reporters ask me the questions, I resort to the reliable practice of citing historical data and giving geography lessons (mostly to the national folks who still sometimes refer to “Charlotte, South Carolina” and such) rather than making predictions. To everyone else, I’ve just been admitting that I haven’t the foggiest notion of what’s going to happen. The Democratic and Republican pros I usually talk to about North Carolina politics aren’t sure, either. Some are modeling the black turnout at 40-percent plus, which will give Obama a fairly easy win. Others are modeling the black turnout at 28 percent, close to what it was in the 2000 primary, giving Clinton a shot if she wins two thirds of the white vote. Public pollsters are pegging the statistic anywhere from 32 percent to 36 percent, thus accounting for some of the variation you see in the margins.

Judging by their last-minute messaging and campaign stops, the Obama and Clinton campaigns know exactly what they need to do to win North Carolina. The Triangle media market is by far the most important one, covering three of the five biggest-voting communities in Democratic primaries (Raleigh-Wake County, Durham County, and Fayetteville-Cumberland County), so the Triangle airwaves are full and the candidates and their surrogates have been to the region many times. But more rural areas still count for a lot of Democratic votes. The Obama campaign is targeting eastern counties such as Robeson and Pitt that contain large numbers of minority voters. The Clintons, and former President Clinton in particular, have spent a lot of time in central and western North Carolina where downscale white voters predominate.

As has been true in many previous contests, the delegate math in North Carolina won’t give the statewide winner an automatic majority. Of the 115 pledged delegates to be won, 77 will be awarded according to votes in the state’s 13 congressional districts. The delegates aren’t evenly distributed, either — the Triangle area districts, because of past Democratic support, are the most valuable. It is conceivable that if Clinton should somehow pull a statewide upset, she’ll do it with higher-than-expected white turnout in rural districts and still come out on the short end of the delegate count.

While the unexpectedly competitive presidential primary is getting most of the attention inside and outside North Carolina, Tuesday will also be a pivotal day in state politics. North Carolina (and Indiana, as it happens) are among the small minority of states that hold their gubernatorial elections in presidential years. With Gov. Mike Easley exiting the scene, both parties have had spirited, expensive primary battles. As is now well-known, both Democratic candidates — Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and State Treasurer Richard Moore — have endorsed Obama. Regardless of personal preference, Moore pretty much had to do it to avoid turning off the pivotal black vote, and Perdue had to protect her flank by doing the same. Both candidates are prolific fundraisers, outpacing the Republicans by a huge margin, and the race got close in March as the two waged a contentious air war. Then, Perdue swore off negative ads. Political pros said she was unilaterally disarming to her detriment, but then Moore’s ads went a bit over the top and she pulled out ahead.

Among the Republicans, who haven’t won a governor’s race in the country’s 10th-biggest state since 1988, a four-candidate field has been narrowed to two frontrunners, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and state Sen. Fred Smith. Either could win the primary. McCrory has usually polled somewhat ahead of Smith, but as the less-conservative candidate he was counting on support from many unaffiliated voters participating, as usual, in the GOP primary — and it turns out that they’re overwhelmingly choosing a Democratic ballot to pick sides in the Clinton-Obama slugfest.

In the U.S. Senate race, by the way, there is no suspense: Elizabeth Dole will face Democrat Kay Hagan, a popular state senator from Greensboro and the niece of former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. Contrary to some national assessments, this could become a competitive race in a mildly Democratic year if enough out-of-state money flows in.

A passel of new polls came out Monday. They settled nothing. According to some, Obama has jumped back out to an insurmountable lead over Clinton, and there’ll be a Perdue vs. McCrory governor’s race in the fall. According to others, Clinton is within striking distance (three points) of an upset, and the GOP gubernatorial primary is a tossup.

What do I think? Well, please allow me pontificate on many additional details about historical voting patterns in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties. . .

– John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation

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