Today was the first day of in-person early voting in North Carolina. I live in Durham County, the state’s sixth largest in population. It is also the state’s Bluest county as Obama won over 75% of the vote here. If Kay Hagan is to win statewide, she’s going to not only need large margins here but also high turnout. Durham and neighboring Orange County are generally the two Bluest counties in the state, but they are quite different. Durham County is anchored by the city of Durham, a majority minority city. Whites and African Americans each make up about 40% of the city while the Latino population has grown significantly in recent years, now likely making up over 15% of the city. Durham is anchored by a strong African American middle class. Called the City of Medicine, the County is home to Duke University and its portion of the Research Triangle. The ‘funkiest’ of the Triangle cities, it’s a mix of diverse neighborhoods, good food, and young professionals. Orange County is anchored by Chapel Hill, a pristine college town home to the University of North Carolina. Often considered the most liberal city in the South, Chapel Hill is highly educated, wealthy, and mostly white. As different as the counties are, both are crucial for Democrats statewide. In addition to winning decent margins out of the much more moderate and suburban Wake County (home of Raleigh), Democrats need large margins out of Charlotte and to win the smaller cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville and Wilmington to pull it out statewide. Democratic candidates that can do okay in rural parts of the state do extra well. This includes not only white rural counties but also Native American heavy counties in the Southeast (the Lumbee Tribe) and Western (Cherokee) parts of the state, new Latino growth in pockets all over the state, and rural African-American-heavy counties in the Central and Southern part of the state.
Curiosity killed the cat, so I decided to show up and vote as soon as polls opened at 9am. As much as it was nice to get voting out of the way, I also wanted to see what early voting turnout was like in Durham County. Though Durham is a huge county, only the Board of Elections downtown was open for early voting today. Three other locations open up for early voting in the County starting tomorrow, including one at North Carolina Central University, a Historically Black College in the city. Thus, voting locations are still rather limited in a city of this size.
I arrived a few minutes until nine and ended up being voter number 38. It took about 40 minutes to make it through the line and cast a ballot. Those in line were rather representative of the county at-large. A group of young professionals across from me all in line to vote before going to work. A retired gay male couple behind me. About 60% of the line was African American, a mix of ages. A couple men and women in suits. A priest. A minister. And an eclectic group of people everywhere in between. Upon exiting the voting booth, the line was still wrapped all the way down the hall where I started, indicating it was still about 40 people deep as a new batch of voters kept streaming in.
Almost every voter carried a blue pamphlet in their hand, provided to them by the Democrat volunteers outside. Other than these volunteers on behalf of the Democratic Party, only a local judicial candidate and her volunteers seemed to be present. While that may seem bad for the Tillis campaign, considering that the county is a Democratic stronghold means the lack of his campaign’s presence isn’t all that surprising.
Democrats in North Carolina commonly get out to vote early. In my neighborhood in Durham, we’ve actually received more contact from Democratic outlets than in 2012. Mailings. Phone calls. Volunteers at our door. We’ve had it all. I must say, it makes a difference as it stands out much more than the absolute barrage of campaign ads that have dominated our airwaves since last winter. If I didn’t examine communication and politics for a living, I would think the ads all blur together. Their effectiveness is perhaps long gone. (Though, I will say, the positive ads where a candidate is speaking to a camera are actually able to grab your attention among all the scary music and dark font ads that dominate the airwaves.)
If Kay Hagan is to win this election, she’ll need that ground game. Thom Tillis is highly unpopular, even more so than Hagan. Ever since the GOP took control of the state in the 2010 elections, they have enacted sweeping reforms. Though popular with the base, voters in a purple state rarely like one-party control. The result? Two years now of Moral Monday protests that started in Raleigh and have since traveled around the state. The NAACP, the gay-rights group Equality NC, unions, and many other activist groups have been attempting to keep their voters engaged in an off-year election. If Kay Hagan wins, it will be because of the local dynamics more than the national ones. It’s what’s causing problems for Democrats in Colorado as large chunks of that state have become fed up with one party Democratic control. Moderate Kansans have become tired of the GOP-dominated state government. The media keeps talking about national waves, but this year still doesn’t appear to be one. While the GOP still has good odds to win the Senate, potentially even by a few seats, they may do it entirely by winning Red States and may not even carry North Carolina, a state Romney won in 2012. That doesn’t happen in a wave year.
Though I’ve spoken about Durham and Orange Counties, the secret to Hagan’s success may actually be the 1-40 Corridor in general. Crossing the state all the way from Wilmington on the coast to the Tennessee border, it is home to important voting counties. Hagan needs high turnout and big margins in the Triangle, especially Durham and Chapel Hill. She also needs to turn out liberal Asheville in the mountains and pick up a decent margin in Raleigh and its suburbs. She then needs to hit about 50% in New Hanover County, a county just a percent or two redder than the state overall and home to the city of Wilmington. And don’t count that out. It’s the small things that matter in a close election. A small city like Wilmington, home to much of the state’s film and television industry, has lost a lot of jobs as of late after the state legislature, where Thom Tillis has ruled as the House leader, cut the state’s entertainment incentives. And off the productions, and their jobs, went to other states…
But then, Hagan also needs to pull a decent net out of Forsyth and Guilford Counties, home of Winston-Salem and Greensboro, respectively. These counties ever so slightly lean Blue with strong turnout (Obama won 53-57% here), and Hagan needs to pull at least in the upper-50s to win statewide. The good news for her? She’s from this part of the state. While the Triangle is filled with Northerners, Westerners, and other folks who don’t have that “authentic” North Carolina accent and palette for BBQ and Bojangles, Hagan is not from this part of the state. Instead, she’s from a moderate swing-part of the state, and that served her quite well in 2008 when she far out-performed Barack Obama statewide, even when he carried the state.
Tillis is from the Charlotte area, and that’s good and bad news for him. If he can keep Democratic numbers down there, it’s a plus. But he’s far removed from the 1-40 Corridor and has not run a great campaign here. Couple that with I-40 media outlets across these cities hammering the actions of the state legislature over the last few years, and it’s a tough area for him. (Tillis is the Speaker of the House, making him something of a state version of a Mitch McConnell or Eric Cantor/John Boehner type. No matter the party, being a leader associated with an unpopular governing body is never good. Though Harry Reid made it through and Mitch McConnell might do the same, it’s not an easy climb. Ask Eric Cantor. Ask Tom Daschle.) Furthermore, Tillis doesn’t excite the base as much as say a Joni Ernst-type could in the small NC counties like Yadkin (a rural county home to most of my in-laws), a county that voted as much for Romney as Durham did for Obama.
And so, North Carolina may be a canary in the coal mine come election night. If Hagan wins here be 3-5%, it’s unlikely to be a wave year. Michelle Nunn could then win in Georgia, yet Mark Udall could lose in Colorado. With those types of dynamics, the GOP is still likely to take the Senate, based on the landscape of this year’s races. If Hagan wins by 5% or more, look out. Maybe the Democrats will somehow hold on. If she loses? It’s going to be a very red election cycle. But then, maybe North Carolina is not a canary at all. Maybe it’s just one individual race in a pile of individual races where there is no canary this cycle. We’ll know very soon. In the meantime, I’ll keep you up to date on the early vote numbers here in North Carolina, birthplace of Pepsi, Bojangles, Krispy Kreme, and all things wonderful.