Photo: The precincts with the biggest increase in Democratic votes were in suburban, predominantly white areas of Forsyth County. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

White, suburban voters were the most
energized segment of the electorate in the Democratic March 3 primary in Forsyth
County, when former Vice President Joe Biden cemented his front-runner status
after his stunning rebound in South Carolina.

A Triad City Beat analysis of election-day returns in Forsyth County, the fourth most populous in the state, found that among the 14 precincts where the number of Democratic votes from the 2016 primary increased by 35 percent or more, nine were in suburbs like Clemmons, Kernersville and Pfafftown. All but three are precincts where more than 75 percent of registered voters are white.

The cohort of energized precincts
also includes wealthy areas on the west side of Winston-Salem, like Precinct
803, serving the Buena Vista neighborhood, where the Democratic vote soared by 42.0

Among Forsyth County’s 101
precincts, the 15 that saw the Democratic vote decline from 2016 were almost
uniformly Democratic strongholds on the east side, with the exception of a few
rural, white and Republican-leaning precincts. A dozen of them are precincts
where African Americans make up a majority of the electorate. And in nine,
including the precinct that serves Winston-Salem State University, African
Americans comprise more than 75 percent of registered voters.

The decisive turn towards Biden has
been attributed to black voters in South Carolina favoring the former vice
president, but turnout numbers in Forsyth County indicate that it was also
powered by many white voters. The split between supporters of Biden and Vermont
Sen. Bernie Sanders appears to have fallen more along lines of generation than
race: Early-voting numbers in Forsyth County and across the state showed a
surge in turnout among voters 70 and older, and a softening of participation
among those 18 to 55, particularly African Americans.

Dan Besse, a Winston-Salem City
Council member who is running for state House in a Republican-leaning district
in Forsyth County’s western suburbs, said Biden’s appeal can be chalked up to a
sense of realism among older voters.

“The older voters who are suspicious
of sweeping promises and people… who don’t have a personal history of having
proved to them that they walk the walk, these are voters that are far more
willing to forgive past transgressions, like the things that Biden said in the
1970s,” Besse said. “They say, ‘We believe in the power of redemption. We
believe him today because he spent eight years as President Obama’s loyal
wingman doing everything he could to help him succeed.’ That counts for a lot.”

Besse faces Republican Jeff Zenger
in the general election for the District 74 seat being vacated by Republican
Rep. Debra Conrad. The Democratic-aligned volunteer group Flip NC has named
District 74 one of three “pivotal districts.” Considering that the
Republican-leaning district is rated the sixth most competitive in the state by
Flip NC, a win by Besse would likely usher in Democratic control of the House.

While Besse did not have a primary
opponent, the robust Democratic turnout in his district is good news for him in
the November general election. The new District 74 includes Precinct 55 in the
southwestern outskirts of Winston-Salem, which saw the number of Democratic
votes soar from 281, when Sanders and Hillary Clinton duked it out in 2016, to
447, when Biden dominated the field during this year’s primary. Similarly,
Democratic vote totals increased by 42.2 percent in Precinct 52, a Republican stronghold
in Clemmons. Heavily Republican Precinct 72, whose polling place is Southwest
Elementary, likewise saw the Democratic vote total leap from 375 to 514.

Biden’s dominant performance in
North Carolina is all the more remarkable because he didn’t make any
appearances or stand up a campaign infrastructure in the state as Sanders did,
or spend money on advertising as the short-lived campaign of former New York
City Mayor Mike Bloomberg did.

In many of the 14 precincts that saw
Democratic vote totals increase by more than 35 percent, Biden doubled or even
tripled Sanders’ vote.

Compared to the 2016 primary, when
he trailed Hillary Clinton with 17,087 votes in Forsyth County, Sanders
finished this year’s primary with only 14,087 votes — a dynamic that has played
out in state after state.

Sanders’ distant second-place finish
with 25.5 percent of the vote to Biden’s 42.7 percent in Forsyth County almost
perfectly mirrored the result across the state. Benjamin Spencer, a lead
organizer for the Sanders campaign in Forsyth County, said the outcome was
particularly disappointing because “from what I understand we had the most door-knocks
of anyone in the state.”

Sanders volunteers were canvassing
in Forsyth County before Sanders’ national campaign organization even set up in

“It was really shocking to see how
well” Biden performed, Spencer said. “We weren’t thinking it was going to be
anywhere close to that. I thought we were at least going to win Forsyth.”

Besse said he knew people who were
canvassing door to door for Pete Buttigieg, who wound up dropping out before
the North Carolina primary and endorsing Biden. He received calls and texts
from people canvassing for Sanders and Bloomberg, along with Elizabeth Warren
and Amy Klobuchar, but not one from someone working to get out the vote for

Spencer cited a multitude of reasons
why the Sanders campaign floundered in North Carolina, including low turnout
among young voters, compounded by an inability to get voters to the polls
during early voting while there was still a large field of candidates that
could potentially split the moderate vote. In speaking to voters, Spencer also
said the “late deciders” were “heavily influenced by the recent result in South

Spencer said Sanders volunteers ran
into a few voters who were genuinely torn between Sanders and Biden, most of
whom tipped toward Biden based on the perception of electability.

“Most of them we ran into,
especially early, who were truly undecided, their No. 1 issue is they wanted
someone who could beat Trump,” Spencer said.

Less than a week before the primary,
Sanders had promised during a campaign appearance at Winston-Salem State
University: “The reason we’re gonna win here in North Carolina is because we
have the strongest grassroots movement of any campaign in modern American
history.” And as he had at one campaign stop after another, Sanders declared,
“We are the strongest campaign to beat Donald Trump because we have the energy
and we have the excitement. We have been bringing working-class people — black
and white, Latino, Native American, Asian Americans — into the political
process. We are going to get young people out to vote in a way this country has
never seen before.”

Many of the 15 Forsyth County
precincts where Democratic voting dropped from 2016 look like the working-class,
multiracial coalition envisioned by Sanders. The precincts for Mineral Springs
Elementary on Winston-Salem’s north side, Konnoak Hills Methodist Church on the
south end and Sprague Street Rec Center in the southeast are among the few in Forsyth
County where Latinx people exceed 10 percent of registered voters.

All three locations, along with the
precinct for Trinity Moravian Church on the Southside — one of the few
that tipped for Sanders — are also among the most diverse, with Asian, American
Indian, multiracial and other voters who don’t self-identify as either black or
white, making up more than 18 percent of the electorate.

Where were the young voters who were supposed to turn out for Sanders?

“I would say a lot of them have been
beaten down by Trump,” Spencer said. “They can’t take it anymore. They’re going
to focus on the general election. They’re exhausted. The economy has gotten
worse, and they don’t have as much time.”

One person Spencer met while
canvassing, although an older man, exemplified the malaise.

“He said he was too tired to go
vote,” Spencer recalled. “He had just gotten off work, and he was exhausted.”

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