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.”

HOW HILLARY WON

hillary-clintonTo look at Clinton’s 2016 primary map is to see a picture of near-total dominance. Sanders managed to win just two coastal counties — Dare, covering much of the Outer Banks, by 300 votes, and New Hanover, home to Wilmington, by just 36 votes. A strip of mountain counties in the west broke for Sanders, handing him decisive victories in the counties of Madison, Jackson and Buncombe — in Asheville’s home county he took all but two precincts.

Clinton lost but a single county in the interior of the state: Orange, home to Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough, as well as a large university, by a mere 550 votes. On the map it looks like the one waffle square where the syrup won’t reach.

She did this despite having a minimal presence in the state, with offices in Raleigh and Charlotte — she sent her husband, Bill, to stump in the Triad while she personally wooed the bigger cities before the primary. That triage extended outward, as she focused her campaign on bigger states of Florida and Ohio, banking on deep party ties in North Carolina to carry it. Endorsements from people like US Rep. GK Butterfield and Democratic House Leader Larry Hall, Dan Besse and other members of Winston-Salem City Council and Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan may have trickled down among Triad Democrats. And she seems to have carried women and African Americans as well.

As previously noted, Clinton got fewer votes in this year’s victory than she did in 2008’s loss. In 2008, she ceded the African-American vote to Obama; Obama led with women voters overall as well.

In 2016, Guillory said, “black voters “certainly helped Hillary Clinton.”

“Look at her history,” he said. “She lived in Arkansas, and was part of Bill’s potency there and when he ran for president he solidified his alliance with black voters. [Hillary] was part of that New South, biracial movement. It’s true there was some black support of Bernie, but it takes a lifetime of those kinds of alliances and relationships that pay off in a primary. It took Obama time and effort to dislodge some of that support for Hillary — sooner or later the historical nature of the Obama campaign got traction and he outpolled her. But she didn’t lose that affection, those relationships. And they came back into play in 2016.”

In exit polling results, Clinton took 80 percent of the black Democrat vote in NC.

In Guilford County, G74 is a bellwether precinct at Bluford Elementary School: 94.5 percent black and 84.5 percent Democratic. Obama took it in 2008 when turnout was above 50 percent. Clinton carried 80 percent of the vote this year.

Hillary also prevailed in G42B, the Friends Home at Guilford senior residence, which is 99.7 percent white, 71.1 percent female and 56.6 percent Democratic. She took about 65 percent of the vote — which admittedly was just 124 votes. This indicates that excitement is down among seniors and women, but that Clinton enjoys strong support among these groups.

She won JEF1, the precinct at McLeansville Baptist Church, rural and mostly white, with about a quarter of voters registered as unaffiliated and the rest split between Ds and Rs. Clinton lost this one in 2008 by 3.5 points, indicating that she absorbed more of the Obama voters than Sanders.

And she demonstrated facility with females both black and white by winning G69, Bennett College’s precinct which skews majority female and black, and G41A at Guilford College, majority female and white.

But turnout was down from 2008 across the board, indicating a waning enthusiasm from women in general and black women in particular — at least in relation to 2008.

Except in G29 at Lewis Recreation Center, which is majority white and female, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one. Turnout has gone up 5 points since 2008, hitting 33.7 percent in 2016. Sanders won the precinct by 25 points.

The former mayor of Burlington, Vt. proved a tenacious contender.

HOW BERNIE STAYED RELEVANT

bernieMake no mistake: Bernie Sanders took one on the chin last week. He lost the night’s biggest prize, Florida, by more than 30 points, taking just nine counties. He lost Ohio by 14 points, and a close one in Illinois by about 2 percent. Even Missouri, where he had been leading all night, flipped to Clinton in the wee hours. Of these states, Florida and Ohio are winner-take-all, meaning all delegates go to Clinton. In the other states, Sanders received a proportional amount of delegates.

His 14-point loss in North Carolina won him 45 delegates to Clinton’s 59. As of press time, before Tuesday’s primary in Arizona and the Utah caucus, he was behind in pledged delegates 830 to 1,147.

Sanders’ unlikely path to the Democratic nomination would have to include wins this week, a large margin of victory in April in Wisconsin, where Fivethirtyeight puts the race almost even, and a close race in New York, where Clinton is heavily favored, on April 19.

Good showings in Pennsylvania and Maryland could fuel his campaign until the June 7 California primary, with more than 10 percent of all Democrat delegates in play. He’d need to show pretty big there, too.

Sanders scored predictably well in the college precincts, garnering more than 90 percent at UNCG and 76.2 percent at NC A&T University precinct. Sanders doubled up on Clinton at Precinct 405 in Forsyth County, Sims Recreation Center near Winston-Salem State University, suggesting that age is more of a determination that race in Sanders voters.

In Guilford, his victories drove a wedge through Clinton territory that began in the eastern part of the county and drove through the center of Greensboro, breaking 70 percent in the southern end of downtown Greensboro and Lindley Park. He picked up six High Point precincts, two in Summerfield and one in Jamestown, plus three precincts on the eastern edges of the county.

In Forsyth, Sanders captured the vote on the south side of downtown Winston-Salem, with his largest margin of victory coming at Precinct 405.

He also took Precinct 021 at the Belews Creek Fire Station, which is 92 percent white with about twice as many Republicans as Democrats, by 14 points. In rural Precinct 092 at Macedonia Baptist Church which has a similar demographic profile, Sanders won by 18 points.

While Sanders was able to break patterns in his support, his returns also gave some insight into another phenomena prevalent in this election: the undervote.

BURR AND THE UNDERVOTE

US Sen. Richard Burr easily won his Republican primary against three challengers with 61 percent of the vote. His nearest opponent, Dr. Greg Brannon, captured just 25 percent. Burr landed more than 622,000 votes, almost 200,000 more than Trump and about 6,000 more than Clinton in her bid for the Democratic delegates.

But though this race attracted a high percentage of Republican voters, still more than 125,000 Republican ballots left this race blank. More Republican voters took part in the governor’s race than the one for Burr’s US Senate seat. And incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory took in about 200,000 votes more than Burr, clocking more than 80 percent of the vote in Guilford and Forsyth along the way, indicating a strong position for the incumbent governor in the fall.

Apathy down the ticket was more evident on the Democrat side.

In the governor’s race, Attorney General Roy Cooper beat Ken Spaulding by more than two to one, but Democratic candidates collected 40,000 fewer ballots than their Republican counterparts in the race. And more than 100,000 Democrats who cast ballots in the presidential race declined to vote in this one.

In the Senate race, where Deborah Ross prevailed with 62 percent of the vote, 155,000 Democrats who showed up at the polls declined to vote.

Sanders voters, in particular, seemed to eschew the undercard races. The undervote in his biggest precinct, UNCG, was around 17 percent for both the Senate and governor’s races.

The undervote becomes particularly important in the US Senate, because 34 of the 100 seats are up for re-election, 24 of them belonging to Republicans. The GOP currently has an eight-seat edge in the Senate, and will need to increase engagement in these races to maintain its advantage.

CRUZ TAKES THE TRIAD

ted-cruzSen. Cruz lost to Trump by just four points in North Carolina last week, winning 22 of 100 counties, including a small band of mountain territory in the west and a stretch of counties in the interior running from Forsyth to Dare. His biggest win came in Bertie County, with 52 percent of the vote, taking Trump by almost 14 points.

Cruz won all the western precincts in the rural edge Forsyth County and most of the east, the county’s most heavily Republican areas; Trump’s precincts cut through the middle of the county. Very few Republican ballots were cast in most of the city’s precincts, but Kasich had the most impressive showing in Winston-Salem, pulling precincts in the south and west. He logged 286 votes in Precinct 803 in Buena Vista, populated with high-income, country-club Republicans, i.e. the establishment.

Cruz won Guilford by about 2,000 votes and 2 percentage points, splitting precincts in Greensboro with Trump and, to a lesser degree, Kasich. Cruz’s precincts included ones in Summerfield, Mcleansville and other mostly white, rural areas. He got his largest Greensboro totals in G27 at Greensboro Day School and G32 at Claxton Elementary School, bellwether Republican precincts with strong voter turnout.

Cruz’s path to the nomination is even more of a longshot than Sanders’. He’ll need to win all of the remaining Republican primaries by an average of eight points each — tough in races with three contenders — or he’ll have to hope for a contested convention, which hasn’t happened since 1952.

And that in itself would cause turmoil among Trump voters, a malcontented lot who just might stay home if their candidate isn’t on the ballot, and could incite even more unpredictability if Trump decided to run as an independent.

THE TRUMP FACTOR

Donald-trumpDonald Trump took North Carolina by yooge margins in the south and the east, winning by double digits in most counties and losing, in most instances, by just a few points. It was enough to win the state by about 50,000 votes — fewer than 4 percentage points, because Cruz won the counties with the biggest populations.

Interestingly enough, Trump did the best in low-income counties that were heavily African American, collecting the white vote in those precincts. His best total, more than 60 percent, came from Columbus County in the south, where he took every precinct; Clinton won the Democratic race there by 25 points. Sanders, with just 31 percent of the votes, was only outdone by Trump by 160 votes.

Of the 22 counties where Trump scored more than half of the vote, 13 of them are described by the American Communities Project as “African American South.” In the general election, counties like these are likely to go Democratic.

Guillory, the UNC professor, underscored the racial makeup of the modern GOP.

“The Republican primary is almost exclusively white voters,” he said. “The Republican Party has become a vehicle for white voters’ aspirations and attitudes and political leanings…. The party has a cleavage between college-educated, professional, affluent men and women, and its high school-educated workers, blue-collar men, and they are the ones who have tilted largely towards Trump.

“These are the sons and daughters of the Reagan Democrats,” he continued, “and Jessecrats — the old Jesse Helms Democrats.”

Trump also did well among counties described by the ACP as “Graying America” — Brunswick, Carteret, Cherokee and Dare. Among these, Brunswick has the most black people at 11.4 percent; Cherokee has the least at 1.2 percent. Put together with Trump’s strong performance in Columbus County, it becomes difficult to make generalizations about where Trump’s support comes from.

In the Triad, most of his wins came from outside the cities, but he managed to find some support in urban precincts.

Forsyth County’s Precinct 081, at Oak Summit United Methodist Church, is 39 percent African American and 53 percent white. Trump won by more than 8 points with 182 votes. But Sanders got more votes than Trump there, even after a 35-point shellacking by Clinton.

Trump’s true Greensboro stronghold is in the precincts of the northwest, but even in the most conservative part of the city his victories couldn’t match the totals of Clinton or Sanders on the Democrat side. But perhaps the most telling point is that Trump was completely covered over by Cruz in the Republican primary in Guilford and Forsyth. In other words, wherever Trump mined the most votes, Cruz won even more.

WHO WILL WIN NORTH CAROLINA?

Despite all the data provided by the 2016 North Carolina primary, the picture remains unclear until each party names its nominee, which on the Democratic side could come by April, but because Sanders still has a copious war chest he may decide to see it through to California in June despite slim odds. In the general election, Clinton has the numbers but Sanders has the passion. But while it seems intuitive that Clinton voters would go with Sanders were he to get the nomination, the same may not be as easily said for the Sanders constituency, some of which has had an increasing hostility towards the Clinton campaign as she keeps racking up wins.

On the Republican side, it would be hard to take the nomination away from Trump, but it seems that the party may be planning to do just that with talk of a contested convention. There’s even talk of an independent, conservative movement if Trump takes the mantle. If Trump gets the nod, he could very well win North Carolina, a swing state that is expected to lean right. His voters might not break for Cruz, or whomever the GOP might enlist to run. But Republicans in the population centers voted against Trump in the primary, so the state could stay red again with a similar margin to 2012, when Mitt Romney won it by 2 percent in his losing bid against Obama. If Trump gets pushed out and runs as an independent, all this math goes out the window.

Or North Carolina could go blue like it did in 2008, the first time since Carter won it in 1976. In his first election, Obama turned North Carolina blue on the strength of a surge in voter turnout and a coalition of young, black and educated voters, though he lost it to Mitt Romney in 2012.

So just as always, the fate of North Carolina depends on who gets on the ticket… and who shows up to vote.

Jordan Green contributed reporting and analysis for this story.

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