At press time, most polls showed the race between Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain extremely close in North Carolina. The state’s electoral votes have gone to Republicans in every presidential race since 1976. But Obama has organized extensively in the state, and the global economic crunch has changed the political landscape. At this writing, how North Carolina will go on election night is anybody’s guess.
On both sides, though, local volunteers are busy knocking on doors, making phone calls and getting voters to the polls, determined either to keep the state Republican red or turn it Democratic blue. And with early voting already under way (it began Oct. 16 and continues through Saturday, Nov. 1), their efforts may play a major role in determining who claims North Carolina—and the state’s 15 electoral votes.
“Studies and experience have shown this time and time again,” says professor Bill Sabo, who teaches political science at UNCA. “Personal contact—the knock on the door, shaking someone’s hand—is the best way to win voters.”
Stumping for Obama
The atmosphere inside Obama’s Merrimon Avenue campaign headquarters feels like a cross between a festival and a military-strategy session. Banners, homemade signs and streamers decorate the steps and halls, sharing the space with detailed maps and an array of campaign literature. Along one wall, orange folders are simply labeled “Lie” in block letters, followed by a subtitle (e.g. “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama supports ‘infanticide’”).
Ross Stearns, 61, who’s volunteered for many political campaigns in his time, started out supporting former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and was considering voting for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the North Carolina primary.
“But I was watching [the commentary program] Hardball one night, and they had all the campaign advisers there—and Mark Penn [Clinton’s chief strategist] was saying, ‘Oh, we never said Obama used cocaine,’ and there he’d just said it,” Stearns recalls. “He said it three times, and I thought, ‘To hell with it—if she’s going to run her campaign like a Republican, then she’s lost my vote.’”
From that point on, he says with a laugh, “I drank the Kool-Aid for Obama.”
It’s late afternoon, and the air is getting cooler as Stearns and one of the campaign’s paid organizers pull into the parking lot of the Kensington Place Apartments in south Asheville before splitting up to start knocking on doors. Stearns has a list of names and addresses, with specific advice beside each one. For undecided voters, it’s “Persuade!” For voters who’ve indicated a preference for Obama, it’s “Vote early!” Encouraging early voting has been a major push in the Obama campaign—it is, after all, one less person they have to try to get to the polls on Nov. 4.
The reactions, says Stearns, have mostly been positive, though one man who was listed as a Democrat spotted Stearns’ Obama T-shirt and told him to “get the hell away.” “Even the McCain people have been very polite when I’ve knocked—occasionally we’ve had husbands and wives who are going to cancel each other’s vote.”
Smiling as he walks between apartment buildings, Stearns notes, “It’s always the most beautiful day of the week anytime I go out canvassing.” On disability due to hepatitis and cirrhosis, he says volunteering has boosted his spirits.
“It helps to keep me going; it’s gotten me back up and out.” And talking about the campaign staff, Stearns positively gushes. “This is the ‘second-greatest generation,’” he says. “I’ve been so impressed by everyone at the Obama office. Except for the daily volunteers, there’s hardly anyone that’s older than 25.”
They’re determined, too, he notes. “Oh my, you can’t get them to listen to jokes or anything. Every day, it’s always about how we can get North Carolina into Obama’s column.”
At the first stop, a younger African-American man answers the door. He’s voting for Obama but hasn’t decided whether to vote for gubernatorial candidate Bev Perdue or a number of other Democrats. Stearns chats with him briefly, hands him information on the other candidates and, when the man expresses interest in helping the campaign, gives him some material on volunteering.
“Got another one,” says Stearns, adjusting his glasses as he walks out the door. On the way down the steps, he catches a woman walking to her car. She smiles and talks for a second. She has to pick up her husband, she tells Stearns, but they’re both Obama supporters and plan to vote the next day.
Stearns’ vision of a great generational moment extends to what he thinks Obama can achieve if elected. “We need the mandate so we can do our version of Roosevelt—so we can make the sweeping changes we so desperately need,” he says, his voice rising a bit. “We’ve got to fix entitlements, we’ve got to invest in green technology. My hope is we get serious and make some major changes.”
Obama’s election, Stearns believes, would also “improve our standing in the world.” In his eyes, “Nothing says ‘We’re sorry’ to the world like electing a black man. It shows that we’re not locked into the old ideas of just confrontation.”
Not everyone Stearns talks to is quite so forthcoming. A young man in a Bruce Lee shirt chats briefly with Stearns while walking his dog. Accepting and folding a campaign flier, he says he’s made his mind up but declines to reveal who he’s voting for.
“It’s supposed to be secret, right?” he tells Stearns. “That’s how it was when I voted in South Carolina. They have the curtains in the booth.”
Stearns nods. “Yeah, they have those here too,” he says, waving before moving on to the next name on his list.
At that apartment, Eva Cruz-Schultz answers the door, her daughter, Bailey, cradled in her arm.
“I’m not a U.S. citizen, but my husband is—he’s voting for Obama,” she says. “We saw him when he came to speak in Asheville. We’re voting straight Democratic.”
The campaign is planning for a big turnout on Election Day, notes Stearns. “We’ll be encouraging people to stay in line—we’re going to have water, snacks. If you’re still in line when the polls would normally close, they can’t turn you away,” he says.
Able for McCain
McCain’s local headquarters, just over the bridge in West Asheville, displays signs for many local and state Republican candidates. Phone banks line each wall, busily worked by volunteers on this Saturday afternoon. A sign on the wall announces a “72 Hour Push” in bold letters, with lines of charts chronicling “phone banking” and “door knocking” below it.
It’s the day before Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin‘s visit, and tickets for the rally are going briskly. A small poster on the wall featuring Rosie the Riveter declares, “Strong Girls Vote Palin-McCain.”
A man walks in with his child and announces, “I’d like to offer my services.”
The volunteer hugs him, replying, “And we’re happy to have them.” A little later, she adds, “It was so refreshing to walk in here the first time—I felt like I wasn’t the Lone Ranger anymore.”
Another volunteer pipes up, “Go outside of the city, into the county, and you’ll see a lot more McCain/Palin signs.”
Sue Wilson and Katie Schwartz have come a long way to volunteer for McCain here: Wilson came from Atlanta and Schwartz from Jacksonville, Fla. Friends for 35 years, they’ve been working the phone banks and canvassing since arriving the day before. They plan to keep at it right up until the Palin rally, after which they’ll head home. Wilson, a project manager for AT&T’s ITT Division, has to be back at work Monday. Schwartz is a speech therapist.
“We wanted to do something,” Wilson explains. “We contacted the McCain campaign and they said Georgia wasn’t a battleground state [but] North Carolina was, so we chose to come to Asheville.”
Schwartz feels McCain represents “a real change, no matter what the mainstream media says—and when he chose Sarah Palin, it seemed like he really added something to the ticket. … He’s really proven himself a real American his whole life. We feel he’ll keep us safe.”
In Wilson’s mind, the contrast with Obama is clear. “I like [McCain’s] economic policy: We feel he’s strong on defense, and Obama is not. He has experience; Obama doesn’t. Most of his time in the Senate has been spent running his campaign. We don’t feel Obama’s qualified, though that’s not the main issue. For me it’s mostly about the policies.”
Schwartz believes McCain “really has the welfare of America at heart. Obama might mean well as a person, but I don’t think he really knows what he’s doing. He’s gone back on public financing [which McCain has agreed to and Obama has not], and we don’t really know where all his money is coming from.”
The campaign dispatches them to the neighborhoods around UNCA—perhaps not the most fertile ground, given the abundance of Obama stickers and the large student population—but the two seem undeterred.
“Uh-oh,” says Wilson with a chuckle, pointing to the Obama/Biden stickers on the back of a car. “For a while earlier today, there was a young man who was hitting alternate houses for the Obama campaign, but we seem to have left him behind,” she notes.
Several of the addresses they have are incorrect, but they take it in stride. “This information is probably a year old, but this is good—we can update it now,” says Schwartz. And on one point, at least, she finds common ground with Stearns, her Obama-counterpart, saying, “People have been very nice, even when they’ve been supporting the other guy.”
Indeed, most of the Obama supporters they run into politely say they’ve already voted for the other side. Schwartz and Wilson thank them for their time and continue down the road. “Ah, these young people,” says Wilson. “Well, some of the young people are voting more intelligently.”
Schwartz nods, adding, “I don’t know, I guess when you’re young you’re just a little too idealistic.”
But when they offer one young man campaign literature, he says, “Sure, because I know I’m not voting for Obama.” And down the hall, two roommates say they’re undecided.
Later, they run into the elderly mother of a woman on their list who died of breast cancer six months ago. They offer condolences, and the woman says she can’t vote because she’s not registered.
After revealing that her sister is battling breast cancer, Schwartz tells the woman she can register and vote before Election Day, handing her information on early voting along with the standard campaign literature.
“That’s why I like doing this instead of the phone banks,” she says as they walk away. “You get to meet people, actually talk to them about their stories.” Schwartz’s husband, she notes, “isn’t voting for McCain—obviously I disagree.” He’s been unemployed for a year, but she remains suspicious of Obama’s economic plans. “This talk about ‘spreading the wealth’ … I mean, I’m all for the underdog—I’m the sole supporter in my household—but that’s socialism,” she observes.
Wilson concurs, saying she fears for the future if Obama gets elected. “I’ve not volunteered before; why do it this time? Because I think it’s one of the most critical elections we’ve had,” she explains. “Obama is the farthest-left candidate we’ve had. I wouldn’t say he’s anti-American, but he’s socialist; his policies are socialist. It scares me more than it ever has. I mean, I like McCain, I support him—but it’s a very critical time. When there’s someone who’s not very experienced and has socialist policies, that just infuriates me.”
Meanwhile, with her family’s finances strained, Schwartz wonders whether they’ll be able to take their usual vacation in Colorado this year. “I guess it depends on the election—though I don’t know if any candidate could really guarantee [her husband] a job,” she remarks.
But Wilson says McCain’s policies would help. “Cutting taxes affects the economy: It creates jobs. Raising taxes will not.”
“That’s right; it will help entrepreneurship,” Schwartz agrees.
What does it all mean?
Times are changing in North Carolina—and that’s opened up an opportunity for a tight race.
“Times like this, with the economy on the downturn, with the state losing manufacturing jobs … that’s when you get swing voters—people who may have historically voted one way but now are thinking twice,” professor Sabo notes.
Obama’s on-the-ground organization is bigger and better-funded than Democrats have historically had in presidential races in this state, says Sabo, though he’s not sure Obama’s theme of change is the right way to reach those voters.
“A better way to refine the pitch might be ‘fix’ instead of change. Change is uncertain, but fix implies that while things may be bad, you have a plan—you can deal with what’s wrong,” he explains.
But Sabo also stresses that there are no polls showing that Western North Carolina will go decisively one way or the other. “Obama visited here and got a very enthusiastic crowd, then Sarah Palin visited here and also got a very enthusiastic crowd,” he notes. “My suspicion is that Asheville will vote heavily Democratic, and the rest of Western North Carolina not quite as much.”
But it’s an unusual year. “Voters are fed up, and a lot’s going to depend on the degree to which they’re fed up. There’s not a lot McCain can do about that; the question is if Obama seems like a viable alternative to these fed-up voters. On Election Day, we’ll find out if he’s connected.”
[David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.]