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Race & gender to the finish

Voters in the North Carolina Democratic presidential primary will certainly ensure that Barack Obama will become their party’s nominee, writes Melton McLaurin.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2008 22:13 IST

Unless Barack Obama makes a catastrophic error before Tuesday, May 6, on that date the voters in the North Carolina Democratic presidential primary will almost certainly ensure that he will become their party’s nominee. That North Carolina’s Democratic voters would play such a pivotal role in the nominating process seemed highly unlikely as the crowded field of candidates began campaigning in earnest early this year. Conventional wisdom held that Hillary Clinton would dominate the field and the race would be over soon after the initial balloting in the states holding early primaries, and certainly by the end of March. So strong was this belief that Florida and Michigan defied the party leadership and moved their primaries to an earlier date to ensure their significance in determining the nominee. Primaries scheduled later in the spring, such as that of North Carolina, were viewed as irrelevant. The messy, unpredictable process of democracy has played havoc with conventional wisdom and placed the North Carolina primary in the national spotlight.

The mathematics of the nominating process makes the North Carolina vote crucial and also heavily favours Obama. In order to win, Hillary Clinton must capture 65 per cent of the delegates in the remaining state primaries. Currently, Obama leads Clinton in the elected delegate count 1,414 to 1,250, and should he evenly split the remaining elected delegates with Clinton, would be within 100 delegates of clinching the nomination. Among the remaining primary states, North Carolina, now the tenth most populous state in the union, has 115 delegates up for election, a number surpassed only by the 158 delegates of Pennsylvania, which had its primary on April 22. While Clinton expectedly won a tight race in Pennsylvania, North Carolina’s cultural heritage and the ethnic composition of its Democratic electorate both argue for an Obama victory, a reality reflected in current opinion polls which give him at least a ten per cent lead in the state. <b1>

In North Carolina, as in the nation, the overwhelming majority of African American voters are registered Democrats, as they have been since the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the era of segregation, which lasted from 1900 until 1965, the white Democrats who controlled the state managed to keep its black voters disenfranchised. The success of the modern Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the 1965 Voters Rights Act by the federal government brought the state’s newly-enfranchised African Americans into the ranks of the Democratic Party. While North Carolina does not have a majority of African American voters within the party, as is the case in such Deep South states as South Carolina and Mississippi, African Americans make up approximately 38 per cent of North Carolina’s Democratic electorate.

Understandably excited by the prospect of an African American nominee and the possibility of their votes awarding him that position, approximately 90 per cent of North Carolina’s African American voters indicate a preference for Obama, presenting Clinton with a practically insurmountable challenge. In addition, North Carolina voter registration laws make it extremely easy for new voters to register, and to continue to do so until the day of the election, additional factors in Obama’s favour. The two demographic groups most likely to register in the days immediately prior to May 6 are African Americans and young voters, both groups that favour Obama. While the Clinton campaign will try to counter with their own registration drive, the demographic groups with which they have the most appeal have a much higher percentage of currently registered voters.

To win North Carolina, Clinton must receive almost the entire white vote. And while she will do well among white women, especially those over 50 years of age, the American South’s strong patriarchal heritage does not bode well for her effort to increase her support among white males. Patriarchal sentiments are deeply ingrained within the culture of North Carolinians, both black and white. Prior to the American Civil War, the customs and laws of the planter-dominated society highly privileged the position of the white male head of household. Planters, in theory and fact, held control over all members of the plantation ‘family’, which included the wife, all children, and all slaves. Adult white males in less affluent households enjoyed the same privileges as their planter fellow citizens. This privileged legal and economic position of the family patriarch was supported by evangelical fundamentalist Christian denominations which came to dominate southern culture after 1820, all of which preached a doctrine of the subordination of women to the superior wisdom of husbands and fathers. The women’s rights movement, which began in the northern states by the late 1840s, had no counterpart in the American South.

None of this changed in the predominately agricultural southern society that followed the Civil War. In the 20th century, North Carolina and other southern states continued to resist the women’s movement. The state’s male legislature refused to ratify the 19th century amendment giving women the right to vote, and its women citizens first voted in 1920 only after enough northern and western states ratified the amendment to make it part of the constitution. In a replay of the battle over women’s suffrage, during the 1970s North Carolina and its sister southern states refused to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and succeeded in blocking its passage.

Thus while it is true that some whites will not vote for a black candidate, it is also true that a higher percentage of whites will refuse to vote for a female candidate. Nationally, those figures are respectively 6 and 11 per cent. In North Carolina, the percentage of Democratic voters who will not vote for a female presidential candidate is certainly higher. The barrage of negative publicity both Clintons endured during Bill Clinton’s presidency increases the difficulty of Hillary’s challenge. Many white North Carolina Democrats, especially males, hold negative opinions of Hillary, and may either support Obama or refrain from voting.

If Barack Obama wins the North Carolina Democratic primary as expected, the pressure on Hillary Clinton to withdraw from the race will increase substantially. Already the nominating convention’s unelected super-delegates, appointed because of their positions within the party, are beginning to call for the candidate trailing in the number of elected delegates to withdraw from the race. Some super-delegates from North Carolina have recently endorsed Obama. Should he win the state’s primary, others will certainly do so. Should this happen, Hillary will come under enormous pressure from national party leaders to concede defeat. In an improbable campaign, a North Carolina presidential primary that was seen as unlikely to effect the ultimate outcome of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination as little as three months ago seems destined to make the nomination of Barack Obama, an improbable African American candidate, virtually inevitable.

Melton McLaurin is Professor Emeritus of History at University of North Carolina