How Does a Red State Turn Blue?

Tagging along with Obama and McCain canvassers in North Carolina.

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—North Carolina is certainly not a bellwether state. At the same time, it is almost certainly true that if Barack Obama wins North Carolina, he will win the presidency. A blue Carolina—the polls close at 7:30 p.m. ET, so we should know fairly soon on Tuesday—could precede a blue Missouri, Colorado, and Nevada. And while an Obama victory would be historic for the United States, it would be even more momentous for North Carolina.

The state has been reliably conservative for decades—Jimmy Carter was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina. Any conversation about change in the state’s politics has to reckon with Jesse Helms, former head of the Senate intolerance committee, who represented the state for 30 years. Among the Democrats who failed to unseat him were Jim Hunt, the state’s legendary governor; and Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s only black mayor. Helms’ “Hands” campaign ad against Gantt has become the textbook example of race-baiting.

That legacy is part of the reason why no one expected North Carolina to be in play this year. But with only days remaining in the campaign, here we are, with the race effectively a dead heat. What happened? To try to get an idea, I spent some time with Obama and McCain volunteers working in and around Charlotte.

But part of the answer, of course, is—nothing happened. North Carolina has long had a strong Democratic Party. All but three of the state’s governors since 1948 have been Democrats. More than half of the state legislators are Democrats. And a million years ago in this campaign, there was actually a North Carolina Democrat running for president.

It has now been 12 years since Helms was re-elected. (He retired in 2002 and died earlier this year.) Since 1996, North Carolina’s population has jumped by more than 1.5 million people. Many of those folks are Democrats, primarily from New York and Florida, plus plenty of rust-belters from Ohio and Pennsylvania. The state ranks high on immigration, too; North Carolina’s Hispanic population increased by 8 percent from July 2006 to July 2007.

All of which has contributed to a very tense election season in North Carolina. More than 30 cars had their tires slashed at an Obama rally in Fayetteville, the carcass of a baby bear was left on the campus of Western Carolina University with two Obama signs around its neck, and Republican Rep. Robin Hayes remarked that “liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God” as he introduced John McCain at a rally in Concord.

In addition to North Carolina being a sudden swing state in the presidential race, it’s also busy with Senate and gubernatorial races. In 2002, Elizabeth Dole defeated Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff by a nine-point margin to take Helms’ place. But Dole has become less popular lately, dogged by a ranking as the 93rd most effective senator and a report that in 2006, Dole spent just 13 days in the state. Dole’s now running a few points behind state Sen. Kay Hagan, and the top of the ticket hasn’t been able to give her much help. More than $17 million has been spent on ads in the state’s Senate race alone. It’s safe to say that any North Carolinian within sight of a TV has seen a few political ads.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Obama’s infamous ground game still meets some resistance in densely Republican parts of the state. Though many Republican candidates are avoiding the party label, Republicans in North Carolina will tell you exactly what they are. In a campaign narrative that has pitted urban elites vs. rural voters in “real America,” Charlotte falls right in the middle. The city is the second-biggest banking center in the United States, and nearly every tall building bears the mark of either Bank of America or Wachovia. Charlotte has been called “one big suburb,” and it does feel that way—the small downtown is known as Center City, and then there’s everything else, sprawling for miles and miles into South Carolina.

Charlotte’s in the middle politically, too. Four years ago, Mecklenburg County went for Kerry, but just barely: 51.6 percent to Bush’s 48 percent. The neighboring counties of Gaston and Union are often considered Charlotte’s outskirts, and they voted for Bush by 68-32 and 70-30 margins, respectively, making them some of Bush’s strongest counties in the state.

On Saturday, the Obama campaign rallied groups of canvassers at its main Charlotte office, tucked behind a Best Buy and a Target. Twice a day on the weekend, bands of volunteers are dispatched into Democratic parts of the city to get out the vote. (Early voting has already started, or residents can wait for Election Day.) But it’s the hard sells that interest me, the Carolinians who still aren’t quite sure about “that one.”

So I go to an area called Ballantyne, 16 miles south of Charlotte’s center. Ballantyne is a country club community, a four-star resort, and the most recent example of Charlotte’s rapid growth. It looks like a suburb, but it’s still within city limits.

A busload of Obama supporters from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has come to knock on doors. The weekend before, they were in Arlington, Va.; two weeks before that, they canvassed Columbus, Ohio. The students look young, confident, and like they just rode a bus down from Washington. A young Obama organizer named Punya gives them their orders.

Each pair is assigned 100 doors; the campaign is hoping to reach 10,000 doors by Election Day. Punya tells them just what is riding on their knocks: “Mecklenburg County and Union County are possibly the most important counties in North Carolina. You’re working in the most important part of the state.” She explains that they’ll be talking to like-minded voters but not necessarily motivated ones: “The majority of people you’ll be talking to are Democrats or undeclared. They’re sporadic voters; they don’t vote every year. We want them to vote this year.”

I go with two of the students, Marc Friend and Alexa Pollock, to their assigned territory: a condo complex called Copper Ridge. There are entryways with about 16 buttons on each. So Marc and Alexa won’t be knocking on doors, they’ll be ringing buzzers, hoping folks will let them inside or come out for a chat.

This hope doesn’t get them far. At least half the folks don’t answer. Those who do respond are not very interested in talking to representatives from the North Carolina Democratic Party, which is how Marc and Alexa describe themselves. This doesn’t seem like the best possible script—for undecideds, party politics wouldn’t seem to be a big selling point. Marc and Alexa experiment with a number of variations and find more success once they start telling people that they are with the Kay Hagan campaign. Using Hagan’s name casts the students as locals rather than the carpetbaggers they are, and they are treated with more courtesy than before.

Still, it would be an exaggeration to say they’re welcome. At one point, a woman comes to the door and says: “You can’t solicit in here. So stop ringing the buzzers.”

After a phone consultation with Punya, who explains that political campaigns are exempt from no-soliciting policies as long as they don’t post anything, Marc and Alexa move to the next doorway and ring another buzzer. The door clicks open, and a grandmother in a blue sweatshirt with a glittered design emerges. “We’re here with the North Carolina Democratic Party,” says Marc. “Y’all are in the wrong group!” she says. She’s friendly but absolutely serious, and she affirms what has become clear: This is not Obama Land. And it does not want to be.

Marc explains to me why he’s not discouraged. “It’d be nice if they could get North Carolina for Obama, but it’s not crucial like Ohio or Pennsylvania,” he says. “And if Obama wins—I should say when Obama wins—he’ll need a Senate he can work with. Not necessarily 60, but 50-some. That’s why we’re working so hard for Kay here and [Al] Franken in Minnesota.”

Later that day, I tag along with two McCain canvassers, who have better luck: Pam and Mike Wisniewski, a young married couple who live in North Charlotte. Like so many others in North Carolina, they grew up elsewhere—Pam in Florida, Mike in Michigan. Pam wears a Women for McCain T-shirt; Mike has one that says “McCain-Palin, Country First.” We are in a neighborhood called Ashbrook, full of houses built in the 1950s, home to a lot of older residents: It is a McCain canvasser’s dream. Mike and Pam skip the houses that already have McCain or Obama signs in the yard. Their script dictates that they say they’re there on behalf of the McCain-Palin campaign—no mention of Liddy Dole—and then ask whether they can count on his or her support. This time around, people do come to the door, and many of them have either voted for McCain already or plan to.

Pam hands out fliers she’s made about how Obama’s tax plan will affect small businesses and agrees with an older Asian man that Obama should release his birth certificate. “My grandmother has her birth certificate from the 1920s,” Mike says to me while the others chat. “So it’s not that hard.”

One gray-haired lady tells them she’s already voted. “May we ask who you voted for?” Pam says. “You can ask, but I ain’t going to tell you,” the woman responds. Then she shows her hand. “All that brainpower won’t get you through all the things McCain’s been through. But I won’t tell you who I’m voting for. You have a good day, and I think y’all are real smart to be doing this.”

At a small apartment complex around the corner, a man engages them—but with frustration. “You’re too late. I already voted,” he says. May we ask who for? “It doesn’t matter—there was nobody good to vote for. I was thinking of putting my own name in.” He shakes his head. “It’s a real disappointment.”

The next day is a warm Sunday afternoon, and an Obama volunteer stands outside the door of the main library in downtown Charlotte handing out voting guides. The library is an early-voting site, and the line snakes up the stairs from the basement, where the polls are.  One woman tells me she came here after spending an hour and a half waiting at a local community college; another couple says poll workers told them to come here because the line at their site was three hours long.

For everyone here, if there is a last-minute October surprise, it will come too late. It’s getting late for John McCain, too: 1.6 million people have already voted in the state, and 54 percent of them have been Democrats, compared with 29 percent registered as Republicans. It’s not necessarily damning since the polls could fill with Republicans on Election Day. But the numbers suggest an enthusiasm for Obama that McCain can’t match.

Across town, it’s game day, and Steve Hinson from Pineville holds up a huge McCain sign outside Bank of America Stadium, where the Carolina Panthers are about to kick off. He says he’s worried that Obama might win Virginia but that McCain will eke out a victory in his state: “Most people we talk to are the silent supporters, not being as vocal or public as Obama supporters,” he says. “Young people are a lot more vocal about what they believe.”

If the vocal youth turn out big this year, that silent majority could become a minority. The state probably won’t be a bright shade of Carolina blue for a while. But anyone will tell you the hues of the landscape are changing. Perhaps in 40 years, Ballantyne will be a Democratic canvasser’s paradise.