Learning the Right Lessons: How the Dems Lost North Carolina
By Gunther Peck
In the wake of the stunning women’s marches across the United States and the planet this past Saturday, President Donald Trump articulated a thought that had in fact been on the minds of many marchers: “Why didn’t these people vote?” If even some of these marchers had not voted, could that explain how Hillary Clinton somehow managed to lose an election that even Donald Trump thought she would win? We will never know how many marchers did or did not vote. But the remarkable enthusiasm gap between this new protest movement and the heavy lifting in the recent Clinton presidential campaign raises a pressing question: How can Democrats more effectively mobilize their moral energy and numerical strength into electoral victories in the future?
For answers, we still need to learn more about how and why Clinton lost. Explanations thus far have focused primarily on messaging failures, FBI director Comey’s investigation, Russian meddling, and the importance of a profound rural/urban split across the nation. But few have considered how and where the Clinton campaign mobilized voters. A closer look at the ground game in the battleground state of North Carolina reveals a simpler explanation for her loss there and a lesson for progressives seeking to win in the future: top-down organizing that ignored local knowledge and an urban focus that wrote off most rural voters. Understanding the history of success and failure in mobilizing voters in North Carolina provides progressives a clear path forward, a model for building an enduring, movement-based Democratic majority in N.C. and across the nation.
Since the recent election, we have heard much about an increasing cultural divide between city and country. Indeed, in some rural N.C. counties — Cherokee, for instance — there is clear evidence of long-term erosion of Democratic strength since 2000.
But returns from other rural counties tell a more complex story. In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the Obama campaign opened field offices in a number of rural counties, and a sizable rural Democratic wave emerged. That effort, spearheaded by voter registration at Obama field offices in small towns like Oxford and Elizabeth City, helped create significant Democratic majorities there.
In 2016, by contrast, a Clinton campaign-sponsored website featured a neat graphic informing internet users where to find nearest Clinton field office based on their zip codes. For Democrats in Oxford or Roxboro, that office was in downtown Durham, 31 and 22 miles away respectively. A dedicated field office was ultimately opened in Oxford, but it was never incorporated into the Clinton campaign’s website. Absent dedicated field offices or the energy that voter registration drives generate, Democratic turnout in Person and Granville counties returned to 2004 levels, when George Bush carried the state by 13 points.
Nor is there much evidence of a consistent Trump wave in rural North Carolina. In eastern counties like Tyrell, the number of Republican voters remained constant between 2008 and 2016, but the number of Democratic voters dropped by roughly 20 percent. Absent a dedicated Clinton field office coordinating voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in the black belt, recently mobilized Democratic voters stayed home.
Had Clinton competed aggressively in small towns, had her campaign held on to even half of Obama’s rural wave, she might have won North Carolina. After all, Clinton expanded Obama’s already impressive advantage in urban counties by an additional 145,000 votes in 2016. The emergence of powerful Democratic majorities in N.C.’s urban counties did not happen in just one election, but has been growing over the past five election cycles. In 2000, Republican George Bush carried five of the state’s seven urban counties. By 2008, all seven possessed large Democratic majorities that delivered 345,000 more votes for Barack Obama than for John McCain. This surge was a direct result of a massive voter registration effort that added more than half a million new voters to N.C.’s voting rolls. In 2016, those same counties grew even bluer: In 2016, Durham County cast 93,000 votes for Clinton, an increase of 22,000 over the 2008 tally, while Mecklenburg and Wake Counties saw increases of 39,000 and 43,000 votes over 2008 respectively. In 2016, Democratic votes in each county also expanded by between 2 to 3 percentage points over 2012, with Durham County, already the bluest in the state, leading the way.
Most analyses of President Obama’s historic N.C. victory in 2008 highlight the role of big data or voter identification technologies that helped Obama organizers effectively target their key cohorts. While such data certainly helped Obama organizers create vitally important walk lists for local volunteers, even the best lists left out voters who had moved recently and unregistered voters. And data did not mobilize voters or find new ones. In Durham, a diverse cohort of local and extra-local organizations like the NAACP, Moveon, neighborhood churches, student groups, and a volunteer-led citizen group, Durham for Obama (DFO), did that work. As one example, DFO had already registered 3,000 new voters and had 500 active members when Obama organizers opened their first field office in Durham. When national organizers left after the primary, the local group continued, holding daily registration drives in Wal-Mart parking lots, barber shops, living rooms, the downtown bus station and the Durham farmer’s market. Local organizers played a similar role in Durham in 2016, where a non-partisan group You Can Vote registered over 12,000 new voters. Indeed, more than half of the nearly 50,000 new voters added to Durham County’s voter rolls in 2008 and 2016 were added by local organizers and local organizations. National organizers also played a crucial role in swelling Durham’s voter rolls. But “big data” did not in fact grow N.C.’s democracy; people did.
Clinton’s national campaign managers also refused the insights of local people who frequently knew where unregistered voters travelled or worked. Like Obama’s national organizers in 2012, the Clinton ground game ignored people in motion or those living at the wrong address, missing opportunities to grow the democracy when canvassing. Local Clinton organizers made the best of a bad script, but were hamstrung in their efforts. The national campaign’s focus on door-knocking and metrics also demoralized volunteers who had been key actors in building the Obama wave of 2008. Put simply, national organizers could have grown an even bigger progressive majority in N.C.’s urban counties had they trusted the insights of local activists and their own local organizers.
“Big data” did not in fact grow N.C.’s democracy; people did.
Could Clinton have won North Carolina by pulling out a bigger percentage of the vote in urban counties? Had turnout levels across the Triangle somehow matched 2008 levels, Clinton would have picked up more than 80,000 additional votes. But absent a comprehensive and targeted voter registration effort in the state’s small towns and rural counties, Clinton would still have lost the state.
If progressives are to win again, they need to learn from the mistakes and successes of recent national campaigns. Rural America is not one unified region with one cultural narrative and one political preference. In North Carolina, there are Democrats aplenty in rural regions, as Obama’s rural wave underscores. The good news for progressives is that there is a path forward. Fighting for the voting rights of sporadic voters, whether Democrats or Republicans, and mobilizing them in both urban and rural counties will be key to their success in North Carolina, and likely in other states as well. Big data will not provide the answer, especially for the estimated 800,000 North Carolina citizens who are currently unregistered, most of them Democratic-leaning. Only collaborations between local and national organizers in both urban and rural counties will build an enduring Democratic majority. Progressives know how to win; they just have to bring their organizing skills and respect for local knowledge to the rural voters who comprise key parts of the latent Democratic majority in North Carolina and elsewhere.
Gunther Peck is an associate professor of American history at Duke University and at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He was active in the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Democratic presidential campaign efforts in Durham, North Carolina.