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 percent.
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 Winston-Salem.
“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 Biden.
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 Carolina.”
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.”