x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The battle to turn North Carolina blue

Volunteers for Obama pound the pavement in a state that has not voted to put a Democrat in the White House since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Volunteers Liz Aycock, left, Andy Ball, centre, and Billy Kennedy canvass for Barack Obama in Watauga County.
Volunteers Liz Aycock, left, Andy Ball, centre, and Billy Kennedy canvass for Barack Obama in Watauga County.

BOONE, NORTH CAROLINA // Billy Kennedy, a woodworker and carpenter wearing a Barack Obama sticker and a baseball cap, approached a small home in a hilly neighbourhood where the racket of two barking dogs had drawn the owner to the muddy front yard. "Are you registered to vote?" Mr Kennedy asked. "Yeah," the man replied. "Have you voted yet?" "No, not yet." "Do you think you might vote Democrat?" "Prob'ly so." And with that, Mr Kennedy, a local Democratic activist, and two fellow volunteers left a sample ballot and some campaign literature about Mr Obama - in case it would help translate a probable vote into an actual one. A bustling town of about 15,000 that gets its character and economy from the major university here, Appalachian State University (ASU), Boone is one of the many places the Obama campaign has tried to entrench itself in North Carolina, a traditionally Republican state it hopes to turn Democratic blue this year. Republicans were so sure of victory in North Carolina four years ago - the last time the state picked a Democrat for president, after all, was 1976 - that George W Bush hardly campaigned here, even with a native North Carolinian, John Edwards, as the No 2 on the Democratic ticket. But North Carolina has emerged as one of the battlegrounds of 2008. As Mr Obama has edged up in the polls here - some now show him ahead - John McCain has found himself playing defence in territory that is without much of a fight normally Republican. This month alone, he and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have visited North Carolina five times, and the Arizona senator is scheduled to campaign today in the Republican stronghold of Fayetteville, where his rival recently drew a crowd of 10,000. Mr Obama, who has visited the state at least six times since the May primary, has established a grassroots organisation that observers, including some Republicans, consider one of the best by a Democrat. Thanks to his unprecedented fund-raising, he has opened more than 50 regional field offices, including the one in Boone, compared with fewer than half that number for Mr McCain. His number of paid staff eclipses what John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, had in 2004. Local Democratic activists in Watauga County have been pounding the pavement for years, trying to turn it blue, with considerable success at the local level. But this year, the presidential race has made things different. "Obama has just changed everything," said Liz Aycock, a 35-year-old mother of two who sells real estate and serves on the Boone City Council. She rolled out of bed on Saturday, reheated a day-old cup of organic coffee and spent the morning knocking on doors as part of a larger group that included Mr Kennedy; Andy Ball, an ASU student and chairman of the Watauga County Young Democrats; and a husband and wife, both registered Republicans, who had driven several hours from eastern Tennessee to lend a hand. Even if the political climate has changed, it does not mean the work is easy or, despite the intense optimism of local Democrats, that it will yield guaranteed results. Mr Kennedy, who lives on a 40-hectare farm outside Boone in the more rural and conservative part of Watauga, is acutely aware of the scepticism many of his neighbours feel about Mr Obama. Canvassing cannot be done on foot, as it is in Boone, out where Mr Kennedy raises cattle and grows trees for timber; the distance between houses is too great. He has spent hours driving from one property to the next trying to engage the folks the Obama campaign wants, and needs, to bring into the fold: voters not registered to either party, and registered Democrats who did not cast ballots in the primary, meaning they might sit out next week, too. Although Mr Kennedy has seen the county change a lot during the 28 years he has called it home, with more progressive people moving in from North Carolina's urban areas as well as from out of state, he said he has not had much luck making inroads with some older white Democrats. Some of them see in Mr Obama only a black man, one for whom they will not vote. Mr Kennedy, 50, who hosts a liberal talk-radio programme on Friday mornings named Watauga Talks, during which a caller recently referred to him as a "socialist", does not even wear an Obama campaign shirt when canvassing in some places. "Right off the bat, that's a negative to them," he said. He wants to reach them on a personal level first, he said, and be able to talk issues. And too much Obama too quick turns some people off. Still, Democrats think Watauga County is fertile territory for a takeover. Part of their hopes rest on a massive voter-registration effort at ASU, which registered 5,000 students, or nearly one third of its student body after a veteran anthropology professor, Harvard Ayers, pioneered a simple, but untried, method: visiting classrooms and giving students a three-minute spiel. Some of the larger classes yielded 100 registrations in a single pop. While the effort was done on a non-partisan basis, its success bodes well for Mr Obama because, statistically, students are more likely to support the Democrat. John Carr, 20, a skinny ASU sophomore with an irreverent wit and a persistent case of hiccups, has been a leader in the effort to corral students for Mr Obama. He works two jobs, including busing tables at a local restaurant, and is chairman of the official campus group of Obama supporters. That means he has been doggedly registering students and, since the polls opened for early voting on Oct 16, calling them one by one to make sure they actually cast ballots (students, even those who are registered, have an abysmal record of showing up at the polls). The election has taken over his life to the point where attending any one of his four classes seems like too much to ask. "Make sure you get your friends out, too, because we're really trying to swing North Carolina this year," Mr Carr urged someone on the other end of the line during one late-night phone banking session at county Democratic headquarters last week. That now is very much the key: getting people to the polls. Judging from the turnout during the early-voting period, Watauga County is on track to break a record, as the country might, too. So far, early voting trends have favoured Democrats. The Obama campaign recently had a weekend goal, in North Carolina, of 100,000 doorknocks, said Mr Ball. But it is hard to quantify the effect of that kind of grassroots canvassing. On Saturday, he, Mr Kennedy and Mrs Aycock came across many houses where no one answered the door, so they simply left campaign materials that sometimes blew away before they had reached the next house. Some residents who did answer were not interested in listening, and some said they had already voted. A few indicated they had not cast ballots yet, but were planning to. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Mr Kennedy said. "I'm not taking anything for granted." eniedowski@thenational.ae