Photo: A dream deferred? Bernie Sanders’ pledge to carry North Carolina foundered against a rally by moderate voters coalescing around Joe Biden. (photo by Todd Turner)
Only weeks after the near-death experience of Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, the former vice president capitalized on his miraculous rebirth in South Carolina by roaring into North Carolina and other Super Tuesday primary states, as voters hedged caution against the populist brushfire set by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“Being old-school, I don’t appreciate [Democrats] being called ‘socialist,’” said Fred Terry, a black voter who is the husband of state Rep. Evelyn Terry in Winston-Salem, in a rebuke towards Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist.” “That’s what’s going to happen. People will not turn out. Folk will get beat up on that.”
Terry added that his support of Biden was calculated to “help with down-ballot voting,” especially for Democratic candidates in state-level races.
The lightning-speed reversal of Biden’s fortune played out with many North Carolina voters holding off on their decision until the last-minute.
Shane Burton, a 41-year-old sales representative who is white, typically takes advantage of early voting, but this year he waited until the actual election day. As it turned out, his favorite — former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg — had dropped out of the race on Sunday, the day after the South Carolina primary. Buttigieg joined Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who also dropped out, for a campaign rally in Dallas on the eve of Super Tuesday to endorse Biden.
“My heart was with Mayor Pete,” Burton said. “Ideologically, I align with Pete. Now, it’s Biden all the way.”
Biden grabbed a formidable 43.0 percent of the vote share in the North Carolina Democratic primary, with Sanders trailing at 24.1 percent. Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who saturated the state with advertising, fell short of the 15 percent threshold needed to secure delegates, with only 13.0 percent of the vote. Likewise, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren received only 10.5 percent.
Like in other states, the North Carolina primary revealed a generational split among both black and white voters.
Hilda Moore, a 61-year-old black voter who works as a housing counselor, said she considered Sanders and Warren, but ultimately opted for Biden when she voted at the Carver High School polling place on the east side of Winston-Salem.
Michael Pitts, a 38-year-old charter-school teacher, also weighed the relative merits between Biden and Sanders before voting at the Heavenview United Pentecostal Church in the city’s southern suburbs.
“What was important to me was looking at what could benefit me as an African-American and what could benefit our community,” Pitts said.
“Me being an educator, Sanders kept pushing forgiveness on student loans,” Pitts continued. “He seemed genuine. What scared me about Joe Biden is [former President] Obama hasn’t fully backed him…. What really weighed in Bernie’s favor is that he has a straight-forward plan for what he wants to do.”
Many of Sanders’ supporters displayed a marked loyalty to their candidate in comments at polling places, suggesting they will be reluctant to sacrifice bold initiatives like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal to join the moderate coalition thought to be needed to defeat Trump.
What’s more, even as Biden leads the delegate chase in symbolically important battleground states like North Carolina and Minnesota, Sanders carried delegate-rich California on Super Tuesday, meaning that the race is far from decided.
“My vote was based on my values and beliefs, and not who can beat Trump in 2020,” said Nargiza Kiger, a 34-year-old graduate student at UNCG who is Asian and who lives in Winston-Salem. “I wanted to vote for a candidate that stands for particular positions that are clear and not the ones that are marketable as being able to beat Trump.”
Kiger framed her support for Sanders in terms of existential and economic survival that transcend considerations of political viability.
“Climate change — he’s the only candidate who talks about it in a serious, strategic way,” Kiger said. “I’m a mother of a 4-year-old, so for me, climate change is a big deal. I’m a grad student, and although I don’t have a lot of student debt, I have friends who struggle with it.”
Heightened enthusiasm among Democratic voters in North Carolina is confirmed by early-voting numbers that show a 32.1-percent increase from the 2016 primary, when Sanders trailed Hillary Clinton in the state. And while Sanders made a push to mobilize young voters this year, including holding a rally at Winston-Salem State University that drew 1,400 people, early-voting numbers reveal the most robust growth among white voters over the age of 70. Meanwhile, the only categories that showed a decline in North Carolina were black women between the age of 18 and 55 — the same demographic responsible for helping Democrat Doug Jones win a special Senate race in Alabama in 2017 and helping Stacey Abrams come close to winning the governor’s race in Georgia in 2018.
Interviews with voters during North Carolina’s Democratic primary revealed an electorate struggling with ambivalence towards the candidates, and hastily trying to assess their respective strengths and weaknesses.
Kimmela White, a 56-year-old public-housing resident who is black and who lives in Sunrise Towers in Winston-Salem, said she immediately ruled out Bloomberg and Sanders.
“I think Bloomberg is a Democratic Trump,” she said. “I wouldn’t vote for Bloomberg and I wouldn’t vote for Trump. The Russians is helping Sanders because they think Trump can beat Sanders.”
White voted for Biden in early-voting. But then she watched him on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” and decided she won’t be able to support him in the general election because “he was dodging questions.”
Her favorites now are Klobuchar and Warren.
“It’s time to get a woman in there to do the job a man can’t do,” White said.
Klobuchar has dropped out of the race, and Warren has failed to gain traction, slipping to third place in her home state of Massachusetts.