Dissecting the vote: How N. Carolina's Triangle turned blue

Raleigh News & ObserverNovember 8, 2008 

RALEIGH — The area of North Carolina known as the Triangle — Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — is turning bluer.

John McCain got nearly 6,000 more votes in Wake County on Tuesday than George W. Bush did four years ago. Even so, Barack Obama crushed McCain on the same turf -- flipping Wake from red to blue with the help of independents and more than 47,000 newly registered Democrats.

Cary resident Nancy Anderson was a life-long Republican until this year, when she switched her party affiliation and voted for Obama.

"It was the candidate," said Anderson, 58. "He's got a mix of pastor, parent and statesman. [The Republicans] probably won't win my vote back."

In heavily Democratic Durham and Orange counties, there are now about 7,500 fewer registered Republicans than in 2004, though the total number of voters has grown.

"I think people moving into the area are more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated," said Amy Ford, 40, of Chapel Hill. "I was hoping Obama could pull off a win here -- but when he did, I was surprised."

Even in Johnston County, where the GOP still rules, this week's electoral results show Democrats gaining.

All told, Obama beat McCain by 15 percentage points across five Triangle counties -- Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham and Johnston -- a decisive margin that helped him become the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter, in 1976, to carry North Carolina.

Farther down Tuesday's ballot, candidates such as newly elected Wake commissioner Stan Norwalk rode a wave of Obama-inspired straight-ticket voters, giving Democrats control of the county board for the first time in six years.

Durham resident Jenny Peters, who grew up in St. Louis, updated her Facebook page online this week to proclaim that she now lives in a blue state.

A friend from Missouri -- where the presidential tally remains too close to call but leans toward McCain -- replied in a text message, "Don't rub it in."

"I think it's a fundamental change in the population of the state, more so than a change in the people who are already here," said Peters, 45. "And that will feed on itself, because people who wouldn't have wanted to move to North Carolina because it's so conservative would possibly want to move here now."

Trouble ahead for GOP?

The trend has some Republicans worried. Tom Beaird, 57, a life-long GOP voter from Holly Springs, longs for the days when steadfastly conservative candidates were reliable winners.

He fears that even a Republican icon like the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms couldn't be elected now, as the state and the Triangle become more urban and culturally diverse.

"Southern white males, they don't enjoy the status they once did," Beaird said. "I fit that mold -- and I'm on the outside looking in."

Though it is true that minority voters turned out in high numbers and many new arrivals appear to have voted for Obama, an analysis of the results across the five counties suggests that many Triangle residents who supported Bush in 2004 didn't vote for McCain in 2008.

In Wake County, at least 11 precincts that went for Bush in 2004 appear to have gone for Obama this year. As the ballots of early voters are added to the precinct-by-precinct totals by elections officials in the coming weeks, even more of Wake County is likely to turn blue.

One such precinct votes at Brier Creek Community Center in northwest Raleigh, which voted heavily for Bush four years ago. On Tuesday, it went for Obama.

Beverly Vollat, who lives near Brier Creek Country Club, said she switched from Republican to Democrat when she and her husband relocated from Ohio in January.

Vollat said she was turned off in recent years by the Republican Party's rhetoric, which she described as mean and counterproductive.

"It's like the old boys, they haven't kept up," said Vollat, 57. "It's a new world. We need to be looking for different ways of trying things."

In Obama, Vollat saw a candidate with the ability to handle challenges gracefully. "I love the man's temperament," she said.

Skeptical of big shift

Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said voters such as Vollat could always switch again.

"They may be a Republican in a different kind of year," he said. "It's the context of the election and the nature of the candidate."

Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist in Raleigh, doubts this year's election will prove transformational. Besides the increased turnout among blacks, Wrenn said he doesn't see anything like a permanent shift in the way the Triangle and the state will vote in the future.

"The election didn't come down to some big trend in terms of demographics," Wrenn said. "It came down to a verdict on eight years of Republican government. If we [Republicans] really want to correct that, we have got to figure out how to govern better."

Chris Hawk, 36, a luxury-car salesman who voted for Bush in 2004, said disenchantment with the outgoing president was not the reason he supported Obama. He thinks Bush has done a good job. Hawk, who lives in North Raleigh with his wife and 12-year-old son, said Obama's tax plan would provide him with more relief than the Republican proposal.

But it was McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate that he described as the final nail in the coffin.

"I didn't want an old hothead in the White House with Sarah Palin as vice president," said Hawk, who is registered as unaffiliated. "[Obama's] demeanor matches mine. I'm in sales. You typically buy from somebody you know and like."

For now, at least, the Triangle is buying Obama.

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