Chris Kromm is the Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies and the publisher of Southern Exposure. A former community organizer, Kromm also writes for the Institute’s blog, Facing South. I spoke to Kromm earlier today about the presidential race in the South, focusing on the hotly contested campaign in North Carolina. This interview was slightly edited for length and clarity.
1. The race in North Carolina is surprisingly close. Does Obama have a real chance to win the state?
He could definitely pull it off, and his chances are growing. If he wins, it will be for a number of factors, starting with the economy. Unemployment could hit 8 percent here, and two key sectors of the economy–manufacturing and finance–have been devastated. That’s been critical in terms of Obama winning support from unaffiliated white voters and conservative Democrats who often vote for Republicans. Second, Obama has really mobilized the core Democratic base of African Americans and urban voters, far more than Al Gore or John Kerry did. And third, core Republican voters here are just not excited about McCain. A lot of Christian conservatives don’t identify with him. The situation is ripe for Obama to take the state.
2. What about demographic changes, especially people moving to North Carolina, and the South in general, from other states?
A lot of people have pointed to that, but people have been moving here for several decades. It’s a factor, but it’s more than that. One recent poll showed Obama making big gains in mountain areas of North Carolina–that not an area of in-migration. It has more to do with the fact that those places are struggling economically; you’ve had local industries like furniture manufacturing and textiles wiped out.
3. Will voter turnout be a big factor? Some people predict Obama’s core supporters, especially African Americans and college students, won’t come out in big numbers.
We’ve had a week of early voting in North Carolina, and about one of six African-American voters have already cast ballots, versus about one of every ten white voters. They are clearly mobilized and, so far, voting in hugely disproportionate numbers. The African-American share of the electorate was 18 to 19 percent in 2004, and it should be around 21 percent this year. That could be a big factor in this election. Statistics on early voting aren’t broken down by age, but there has been serious turnout at colleges thus far.
4. No Democrat has won the presidential election in North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. How solidly red is the state?
There’s a misperception that this is a very red state. Democrats hold most statewide offices, and Democratic Party registration has grown far faster than Republican registration. By party, it’s more of a blue state, though we usually elect pro-business, conservative Democrats who might be running as Republicans if they were in other states. Congressman Heath Shuler doesn’t have the same politics as Barney Frank, but he’s a Democrat, and that matters if Democrats are trying to build majority support for a bill they want to pass.
5. There’s been talk about possible voter suppression or intimidation in some parts of the country, including North Carolina. Could that become a significant issue?
There was a recent event in Faytteville where a group of McCain supporters were screaming at early voters who were mostly black. But both sides are lawyering up to deal with possible voter suppression, especially on Election Day. The Obama campaign is recruiting layers in every county who will be ready to respond if problems arise. It’s a concern, but there are some systemic issues that could be more important. In North Carolina, we have straight-ticket voting by party, but it doesn’t include the president. That dates to the 1960s, when state Democrats wanted to disassociate themselves from national Democrats, who were embracing the civil-rights movement. In 2004, there were 92,000 ballots that didn’t register a vote for president. Part of that was probably that they didn’t like either candidate, but mostly it was because voters thought that the president was included if they voted for a straight ticket by party. That could make a difference, especially with new voters who aren’t familiar with the ballot. In Florida, there has been a purging from the rolls of voters who are not an exact match between the name they’re registered under and its spelling in other databases like Social Security. So some fully eligible voters are being wrongfully taken off the rolls. If the race is close there, that could be a factor.
6. In addition to North Carolina, several other Southern states are apparently in play this year. Does this reflect long-term trends that favor the Democrats, or is this a blip?
The G.O.P.’s Southern Strategy goes back decades, which built the South as the party’s base. Republican dominance reached its peak in the South in the mid-1990s. There’s been a gradual chipping away at that, which is what we’re seeing this year. Democrats have had more and more potential to win here during recent election cycles, as conditions have changed to undermine the G.O.P. base. There are dramatic demographic changes, as in Mississippi, for example, with its large African-American population and a skyrocketing Latino population. Combine those sorts of changes with urbanization and other factors. Obama, because of his immense fund-raising prowess, has spent a lot of money and tried to capitalize on all of this. In the South, Democrats traditionally just throw up their hands and refuse to fight.