One on One With D.G. Martin

What do Tar Heel basketball fans and North Carolina Democrats have in common?

Their joy over winning is already fading into worry about next year.

Despite cutbacks, big newspapers still manage to give worried basketball fans a daily dose of speculation about the prospects for next year’s teams. But the resources for reporting on government and politics haven’t fared as well at the dailies, so we sometimes have to look elsewhere for the kind of analysis and commentary the big-city papers once served up every day.

One of the best sources for relevant information and careful analysis is The Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. It’s a small organization led by former News & Observer journalist Ferrel Guillory. One of its missions is helping the university and its faculty serve the public “by informing the public agenda and nurturing leadership.”

After every important election, the program’s staff gathers and organizes election results and polling data in a form that’s accessible and understandable. The new report on the 2008 election, in the April issue of its publication Data-Net, is available online at http://southnow.org/. Here are some of its insights:

1. The 2008 election in North Carolina was “tide-changing.” First, Obama’s close victory in the presidential contest broke a seven-election string of Republican triumphs in our state. Second, Kay Hagan’s victory marked the first time a Democrat has won a U.S. Senate election here in a presidential year since Sam Ervin in 1968. Third, Beverly Perdue broke a 300-year male monopoly on the North Carolina governor’s office.

2. Although a majority of voters over 40 supported Republicans in 2008, younger voters trended Democrat. Those ages 18 to 29 strongly supported Democratic candidates (Obama: 73 percent, Perdue: 70 percent, Hagan: 68 percent).

3. Minority voters tend to vote Democratic, usually overwhelmingly. Nevertheless, a Democratic candidate must also draw substantial white support in order to have a chance to win. A rule of thumb in North Carolina politics is that a Democratic candidate must get at least 40 percent of the white vote to have a chance to win. In 2008, however, the three top Democratic candidates each won with less than 40 percent white support. (Obama: 35 percent, Perdue: 36 percent, Hagan: 39 percent).

4. Kay Hagan’s resounding defeat of Elizabeth Dole may have been lost in the shuffle of Obama’s and Perdue’s narrow wins. This time last year, some of North Carolina’s most respected political observers assured us that Dole was unbeatable.

5. Although the state’s mountain region has pockets of strong Democratic support, it still retains some of its historical Republican tilt. If the 2008 elections had been restricted to the 23 mountain counties, McCrory would have had a solid victory—and McCain a landside.

6. Eastern North Carolina, on the other hand, favored Democrats this time (notwithstanding pockets of strong Republican support). If the 2008 elections had been limited to the 40 counties in the east, Obama would have eked out a victory, and Perdue would have won by a landslide.

7. Both Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s statewide majorities got big boosts in the state’s major urban centers: Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and the Research Triangle. Without strong support for Democratic candidates in these heavily populated areas, the 2008 election results would have looked quite different.

8. If there’s good news for Republicans, it is this: Despite last year’s Democratic victories, North Carolina is solidly competitive, with neither party assured of victory in any statewide contest. In polls associated with the 2008 election, voters identified themselves as follows: 41 percent Democrats, 31 percent Republicans, and 28 percent independents.

So while Democrats, like Carolina basketball fans, enjoy their recent victories, they would do well to remember: Next time is another time.

[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]

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