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Obama support transcends race, class

by Jordan Green and Brian Clarey

Sen. Barack Obama reached deep into Guilford and Forsyth counties’ electoral reservoirs on May 6, where voters favored him two to one, helping him solidly rout rival Sen. Hillary Clinton in a state where she had hoped a strong showing would intensify doubts about Obama’s ability to marshal a viable cross section of voters going into the November general election.

“This isn’t really that crowded,” said poll worker Sonya Jones, a US Postal Service employee, as she surveyed two boisterous lines inside a fellowship hall at Vandalia Presbyterian Church, a predominantly black and Democratic precinct in a well kept pocket of south Greensboro. “It’s been a lot of young people turning out. I’m talking eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. And a lot of people who haven’t voted in a long time. I’m talking about twenty or twenty-five years. The last lady I talked to, she said, ‘I thought you had to pull a lever.'”

Obama carried Precinct G53 at Vandalia Presbyterian Church by 91.2 percent, pocketing 1,256 votes. In contrast, majority-white precincts with large numbers of registered Republicans, such as Ragsdale YMCA in Jamestown and Sedgefield Presbyterian Church, did sluggish business with about three voters at a time, even with about two hours to go before the polls closed.

At Montlieu Math & Science Academy in High Point, where Obama won 89 percent of the vote, Chief Judge Hazel Rorie pronounced turnout to be “very good, excellent” at noon. Across town, at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, a Republican-dominated precinct, Bruce Wiley was campaigning for his wife, a Republican state House representative. He noted, “There has been no lunch rush at all,” adding that Democrats appeared to be turning out at higher rates than their Republican counterparts. The demographic contrast didn’t help Clinton much; Obama still won Precinct H15 at Forest Hills Presbyterian by 65 percent.

North Carolina’s primary election returns demonstrated that Obama’s support among Tar Heels extends beyond energized black voters and newly engaged college students. Guilford County can be seen as a microcosm of North Carolina, with the third largest population in the state and a geographic location between the larger urban areas of Raleigh and Charlotte, and with it colleges and downsized manufacturing workers. And if Clinton hoped to sell herself as a working-class hero and a conservative realist, precincts where those demographics would be expected to predominate tended to favor Obama, if not as decisively as did those with African-American majorities.

Archer Elementary, a working-class, majority-Democratic and multiracial precinct with Greensboro’s largest concentration of Asian voters favored Obama by 79 percent. The Grove, a Republican-leaning precinct on Jessup Grove Road near the new Proehlific Park athletic center, gave the candidate 62 percent. Adams Farm Community Church, a majority-white precinct roughly divided between Democrats, Republicans and independents broke 72 percent in his column. And St. Pius X Catholic Church, an affluent, overwhelmingly white precinct where Democrats hold a narrow edge over Republicans, went to Obama by 64 percent. Clinton carried only 23 of Guilford’s 163 precincts, mostly in rural areas of the county.

The parking lot at Calvary Baptist Church in McLeansville held SUVs and pickups. One truck flew a tattered American flag from its antenna, and a “Dixie on My Mind” sticker emblazoned its vanity plate. A church trailer marked “Piedmont Baptist Association/Disaster Relief/NC Baptist Men” also sat in the parking lot.

“Things have grown so much around here, we’ve added a considerable number [of voters],” said Chief Judge Helen Sockwell, a retired teacher who was working her sixth election. “There are a lot of new voters on that list. I had a couple people register to vote [today]. They couldn’t vote today, but for the general election.”

About a fifth of voters in the precinct are unaffiliated. Most of those who turned out for the May 6 primary requested a Democratic ballot, Sockwell said. Obama carried the 64 percent of the vote.

Although Clinton took only 30 percent of the vote in Guilford County, her supporters displayed the reinvigorated civic-mindedness and yearning for political reform that has been the hallmark of this election season.

Eighty-two-year-old Lillian Brannon, who cast her ballot at Page High School, voted for Harry Truman in her first election in 1948. This time around, she was going with Clinton.

“I almost feel like I know her personally,” Brannon said. “She’s made so many appeals on the phone. And she makes sense. She wants to end the war – that’s good. And with Bill, I always through he was a very smart man, and they’d be like teammates.”

Scott Boulette, a currency trader, was conducting an informal exit poll by handing out Clinton stickers at Jefferson Elementary in northwest Greensboro.

“Hillary’s way up in the women-over-fifty-group – about seventy-five percent,” he said. “In the black group, it’s almost the reverse of that.”

The precinct is roughly split between Republicans and Democrats, and 85 percent of registered voters are white, but in the early afternoon it seemed there were almost even numbers of white and black voters moving through the line.

As an older, white woman passed, Boulette offered her a sticker, and she quickly accepted.

The next voter was a black woman.

“I’ve been handing out Hillary Clinton stickers, and I’d love to give you one, but I just ran out,” Boulette said.

“That’s too bad,” the woman said, and laughed.

“See, I’m two for two,” Boulette said.

He said he considers Clinton a “policy wonk,” and someone who would withstand adversity better than Obama, and he holds a personal reason for supporting the candidates’ crusade to achieve some version of universal healthcare.

“I am alive today because I had a very long-term, very good relationship with my primary-care doctor,” Boulette said. “I got a checkup, and it wasn’t a drive-by. [My doctor] said, ‘It’s probably nothing, but you might want to get tested.’ When he called me, I already knew what he was going to say. I said, ‘If you look at me, I’m one of the best people to get this. I have the right profile. I’ve got the mental resources. I’ve got the support system.'”

Despite Clinton’s success at establishing strong emotional bonds with her supporters, despite her bare-knuckled effort to appeal to working-class voters, and despite her carefully cultivated image as a decisive and tough leader, Guilford County’s Obama-friendly snapshot proved to be a reliable description of the state as a whole.

North Carolina’s two largest counties, Mecklenburg and Wake, provided the largest number of votes to Obama, with 106,088 and 127,942 respectively. Durham County, with its 38.2-percent black population and heavy Democratic registration, delivered the highest urban majority for Obama, at 75 percent. Counties won by Obama ranged from high-wealth Wake, with a median family income of $78,369, to low-wealth Lenoir in the east, where average families earned $38,815, according to the last census in 2000. Buncombe County, with liberal Asheville, along with Cumberland and Onslow counties, home respectively to Fort Bragg and Camp LeJeune, also went to Obama.

Clinton’s successes showed that her campaign to win the hearts of working-class whites – as Obama struggled with his association with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and with his image of erudition – paid only limited dividends. She carried counties ranging from Iredell, a relatively affluent unit north of Charlotte that skews Republican and white, to Rockingham County, a Democratic-leaning redoubt that has made a bruising adjustment to the off-shoring of the textile industry. Only three counties – Robeson, Johnston and Union – delivered more than 10,000 votes apiece to Clinton.

And turnout in North Carolina’s eight most populous counties, where Obama performed well, averaged about 40 percent, while turnout in the more rural counties that favored Clinton hovered at around 35 percent.

“This precinct, the people come out to vote,” said Al Hayes, chief judge at the Bluford Elementary precinct in east Greensboro, and a Harlem transplant who has been volunteering in elections since the year Jimmy Carter was elected president. “We’re going to have maybe eight hundred this time. That’s about right on average for this type of election.”

He was wrong.

Total turnout clocked in at 1,258, and 1,143 tapped the screen for Obama.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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