by Brian Clarey
On Tuesday, March 15, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton enacted a magnificent five-state sweep over Sen. Bernie Sanders in that day’s primaries, capturing Florida by more than 30 points, pulling off squeakers in Illinois and Missouri — which she won by two-tenths of a percent — and taking Ohio by 14 points.
In North Carolina, Clinton defeated Sanders by nearly 15 points, with strong support in Guilford and Forsyth.
Donald Trump had a big night, too, maintaining his frontrunner status by claiming the Republican nomination in four of five states, with Ohio Gov. John Kasich taking his home state and Trump’s closest rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, winning none.
In North Carolina, Cruz lost by just 40,000 votes, significant considering more than 20 percent of Republican primary voters chose neither Trump nor Cruz — a pool of about a quarter-million voters. And Cruz took Guilford and Forsyth counties by 5 and 3 points, respectively.
Cruz is still alive. So, for the moment, is Sanders.
This year, the picture comes off as unusually fuzzy. The polls seem unreliable; the national media shows bias, particularly in the cases of Trump and Sanders; and traditional voting patterns are breaking up.
And while the March 15 primary may not have brought a final clarity to the proceedings in what has become the most bizarre and unpredictable presidential election season in generations, it did provide some more points to plot on the trendlines, and gave us some idea of how North Carolina may go when the general election arrives.
WHO SHOWED UP
The data in this election is skewed somewhat by the historic year of 2008, when Barack Obama energized voters on his way to become the first African-American president of the United States. But the 2008 primary makes a fine point of comparison with 2016: two-term presidents on the way out, with established legacy candidates and political upstarts vying for the nominations.
But in North Carolina, 36.9 of registered voters turned out for the 2008 primary, while this year we hit 35.4 percent, just a hair above 2012’s 34.7 percent turnout — when Obama had locked up his re-election nomination and Mitt Romney had all but secured the bid from the GOP. The North Carolina primary fell on May 8 in 2012; the earlier date this year gives it more significance in the national picture.
In 2008, the NC primary fell on May 6, by which time McCain’s nomination had been more or less set by the Republicans, though he had yet to select Sarah Palin as his running-mate. Still, about 500,000 voters took the Republican ballot in 2008. Three times that many — more than 1.5 million — voted on the Democrat ballot in North Carolina. Obama beat Clinton by 15 points in the Old North State in 2008.
Oddly enough, Clinton took in fewer votes in her 2016 victory — 616,758 in unofficial results — than she did in 2008, when she pulled 657,699 in her loss to Obama.
That can be explained by a significant drop in excitement among Democrat voters since 2008, with about 400,000 fewer ballots cast statewide, a pattern that holds in Guilford and Forsyth. Meanwhile Republicans more than doubled their numbers from 2008. Statewide in 2012, about 10,000 more Republican ballots were cast than Democratic ones. But the Triad’s urban counties tell a different story.
Guilford saw 37.7 percent turnout, up from 2012 but down from 2008. But Republican voters surged in the county, casting 20,000 more ballots than in 2008, and 3,000 more than in 2012, while Democrats cast 25,000 fewer than in 2008. Democrat ballots still outnumbered Republican ones in Guilford by about 15,000.
It was a similar story in Forsyth, where turnout was above the state average and Republican participation in terms of actual votes doubled from 2008 to 2012, and jumped by another 15 percent in 2016. That year, Democrats cast more than 60,000 ballots in Forsyth. This year, they cast just 42,135, about 700 more voters than the GOP in 2016.
Republican primary participation in Forsyth has hockey-sticked since 2008, when just 18,000 or so were cast. More than 37,000 showed up in 2012.
Still, even Sanders in his loss to Clinton got more actual votes than Cruz, who carried the county in the Republican race. In Guilford, he got 8,000 more votes than Cruz, and Hillary got almost as many as Cruz and Trump combined.
Ferrell Guillory, UNC journalism professor and director of the university’s Program on Public Life, called Clinton’s 2016 numbers a “political warning sign.”
“It’s hard to compare and contrast particular years,” he said. “[But] a couple things are relevant.
“In 2008 you had the great rush towards Obama; the excitement about the Obama campaign elevated turnout,” he said. “And in 2008 you didn’t have Trump vs. Cruz — the Republican primary was settled by May, so the real attention in the state was on the Democrat side. So 2008 was in many respects a distinctive year.
“Having said all that,” he continued, “that [Clinton] got fewer votes in 2016 than she did in 2008 tells you she still has work to do in North Carolina coming into the general election.”