SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Race, Culture and North Carolina Elections
It was 1990, and blue-haired, little old ladies -- white women who had grown up in the segregated South -- grabbed a plate of barbecue and anxiously waited under the tent.
They had come to support their man, a smooth-talker preaching change. Whatever their upbringing, it didn't matter now. That was the past. This was the present, the future.
And this man was sharp, combining the talk of the moderate, pro-business Democrats that they typically supported -- like Jim Hunt -- with a brighter vision of tomorrow.
When he arrived at the rally in Goldsboro, they cheered, holding up their signs and proudly wearing their pins in support of Harvey Gantt, the former Charlotte mayor and an African-American.
Gantt, of course, lost to Jesse Helms in that 1990 race for U.S. Senate, a race decided by 5 percentage points. Some analysts say Gantt's loss was a result of Helms' infamous "white hands" ad that played on white fears about affirmative action and job losses.
Six years later, Gantt lost to Helms again, this time by a wider margin. Those little old ladies with their blue hair and rural roots didn't have the same enthusiasm. Gantt had done little to help Democratic causes since the earlier election, and that grassroots support dried up.
A black man will again be atop the Democratic ticket in North Carolina this fall, this time running for president.
Just like in 1990, polls show that the black Democrat, Barack Obama, has a chance to defeat a white Republican, John McCain, and take North Carolina's 15 electoral votes. Two recent polls suggest the contest is tied, while another shows Obama ahead by 2 percentage points.
North Carolina seems to be following a nationwide trend, with states once leaning toward McCain now shifting toward Obama.
Some pundits, though, write that Obama could see a repeat of Gantt's fate, that racism makes poll results unreliable and will ultimately undermine his candidacy. In effect, they seem to be setting the stage for an easy explanation should the Illinois senator lose.
Racism certainly can't be overlooked in how it affects voting behavior. Measuring the effects, though, is difficult.
But the argument made is that any white male Democrat running for president, with the economy in the tank and an unpopular war, would be trouncing McCain.
Maybe there's some truth to the statement. But what would a white, male Democratic nominee look like? Would he be a Southern or Midwestern moderate, with small-town roots and executive experience? Or, would he be a Harvard-educated lawyer with a liberal, inner-city power base?
How do you sort out those cultural factors in how they affect people's perspectives and votes?
For all of us -- black, white, Hispanic, Asian -- race and culture color the way we see the world.
But their perspectives didn't prevent some little old white ladies from rural eastern North Carolina from supporting Harvey Gantt in 1990. They may not keep them from supporting Barack Obama in 2008.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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