Unaffiliated are a force in N.C.

SUN JOURNAL

Politics: New voters have registered in numbers large enough to swing the state's presidential race.

October 06, 2004|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

RALEIGH, N.C. - At Big Ed's, where the political wise men stop in for their fix of country ham and grits with red-eye gravy, there are more questions than answers about how the presidential campaign is playing in North Carolina.

On paper, the 15 electoral votes at stake here should be well within reach of the Democrats because John Kerry chose home-state Sen. John Edwards to be the vice presidential nominee. The governor is a Democrat and so are nine of the 10 statewide officeholders.

But an opinion poll conducted for the News and Observer Sept. 20-22 found President Bush leading Kerry 50 percent to 44 percent, hardly an insurmountable margin but twice what it was a month earlier.

And the other, more subjective, indicators are ambiguous.

Ferrel Guillory, a veteran political correspondent now on the faculty of the University of North Carolina, is puzzled by the strong lead Bush continues to hold among working-class white men when the past four years have seen a series of setbacks in industries - textiles is the best example - important to Carolina workers.

Tucking into Big Ed's giant pancake, he muses that the message seems to be that the Southern male hostility to liberal national Democrats trumps even self-interest.

This is the voting group that has become controlling all across the Cotton South in the past generation. Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at UNC, and colleague Phil Meyer analyzed 2000 election exit polls across the region and found white males voted 70 percent to 27 percent for George W. Bush over Democrat and Southerner Al Gore, compared with 60 percent nationally.

This is nothing new: 20 years ago, Democrat Walter F. Mondale polled less than 20 percent of white males against incumbent Ronald Reagan in some Southern states.

The question here is whether their solid commitment to Republican presidential candidates can be offset by Democratic gains in turning out their votes and enlisting the increasing share of voters registering as unaffiliated.

The African-American turnout is critical for the Democrats. Dan Blue, one of the most influential black leaders in the state, says he has found an unusually high level of political energy among longtime regular Democrats. Blue is less certain about how the enmity toward the Bush administration - polls show it is based largely on economic dismay - will translate Nov. 2.

At this stage, neither presidential campaign is highly visible here. Instead, television screens are filled with commercials for Democrat and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and Republican Rep. Richard M. Burr, his opponent for the Senate seat Edwards is vacating.

Kerry's position here is evident in Bowles' determined attempt to keep his distance from the national ticket - presenting himself as "an independent voice" for North Carolina and as "a different kind of Democrat," as Bill Clinton did in 1992.

Democrats, nonetheless, are encouraged by the voter registration gains they have made here this summer after being discouraged by a trend toward the Republicans for years. Gary Pearce, a leading Democratic operative advising Bowles, notes with some chagrin that in 1990 Democrats accounted for 60 percent of the state's 3 million voters, but by 2003 they could claim less than 50 percent of 5 million voters - not a promising trend for Kerry.

The trend has continued in the election year. Kevin Howell, communications director for the state Republican Party, points out that from Jan. 1 through Sept. 25, Republicans have added 91,661 new registrants, Democrats 83,831.

But in July and August the 100,245 new voters who qualified included 41 percent Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and, most impressive to political insiders here, 26 percent unaffiliated, which included many young people. County-by-county analyses suggest, moreover, that in the largest counties the totals included a disproportionate number of minority and women voters, ordinarily a good sign for the Democrats.

In some areas a substantial share also apparently was produced by a number of left-leaning independent expenditure groups - most notably, the "527s," named for a section of the tax code under which they function - that are required to be party- and candidate-neutral but nonetheless are clearly pro-Democrat and pro-Kerry. The question with these is whether they deliver more than just names on a registration list.

Indeed, the effectiveness of these campaigns in a dozen or more states might be the single most significant element in the election outcome if the contest remains as close as it appears today. It is also possible that the new registrations have warped the potential electorate enough to raise questions about the statistical models that poll-takers are using in some states.

"I think there's something to that," says John Deardourff, a Republican consultant, "but you still have to get them to the polls."

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