Of the 15 states holding primaries on Super Tuesday (plus American Samoa and “Americans Abroad”), which is coming up on March 3, North Carolina has 110 delegates up for grabs — the third-most on the line after California (416) and Texas (228). Early voting began on Thursday, February 13 in North Carolina. That same day, Michael Bloomberg held a rally at a train station in downtown Raleigh, NC; on Friday, Bernie Sanders held a rally 25 miles away in downtown Durham. I did not attend the Bloomberg rally because I did not know that it was happening. I attended the Sanders rally because I both knew that it was happening and it was a 15-minute walk from my house. News reports placed the crowd of the Sanders event at around 3,100 people, filling up a ballroom at the Durham Convention Center to the point that fire marshalls started shuffling hundreds of people into an adjacent “spill-over room,” where Sanders popped in to say “hi” before addressing the main ballroom. Meanwhile, coverage of the Bloomberg speech did not touch on attendance numbers, perhaps out of politeness. (A state-level Bloomberg staffer whose social media feed indicated that he’d attended the event did not respond to a request I sent asking him to share the campaign’s estimate of crowd size; however, a City of Raleigh web page for Union Station, the venue where the Bloomberg event was held, lists its event space as able to “accommodate groups in excess of 400.”)
Despite former Vice President Joe Biden’s relative strength in state-level primary polls — the most recent numbers out of High Point University have him at a slight lead over Sanders among likely voters, while that same poll gives Sanders a six-point edge over Biden among registered voters — he is in grave danger of losing the February 29 South Carolina primary, the early primary state where he was supposed to do so well that it would make everybody forget how poorly he did in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. This is to say nothing of the fact that Biden does not seem to be having a very good time on the campaign trail. If Biden flames out, it will be very good for Sanders, who will suddenly be the most famous person seeking the Democratic nomination, and it will also be good for Bloomberg, who hopes he can gain the moderate voters that Biden is throwing away every time he screams at a reporter or challenges someone to a push-up contest. By Super Tuesday, the campaign may very well be a contest between Bloomberg and Sanders.
I get the feeling that each hopes that this is the case. At Bloomberg’s rally on Thursday, he pitched himself as “the candidate of sanity,” a dig aimed at Trump but which might as well apply to Sanders, who has proposed taxing billionaires out of existence. If I were Michael Bloomberg — who is, just to be clear, a billionaire — I would think that idea was insane. At Sanders’s event, the national co-chair of his campaign, the former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, introduced Sanders in a speech that took direct aim at the former New York Mayor, criticizing his recently-unearthed comments from 2015 articulating the racist undertones of his stop-and-frisk policy, as well as contrasting the massive amounts of money that Bloomberg has thrown around to build a network of institutional support for his candidacy, telling the crowd, “We’re not for sale.” Where Bloomberg has money, Sanders has grassroots support: After the Vermont Senator spoke, volunteers led supporters on a march to a nearby early voting location.
Bernie Sanders is popular in Durham. This much I know. He has by far the most active volunteer base in the city, and in the middle-class North Durham neighborhood where I live, Sanders signs and stickers dominate lawns for blocks (in this interest of full disclosure, this includes my car too). The houses get nicer the further away from downtown you go; once you hit the streets where property values jump up to the million-dollar range, you start to see a good number of Elizabeth Warren signs, plus a smattering of Pete Buttigieg memorabilia. I’ve also seen a dude driving around in an old Toyota pickup truck with an Andrew Yang sticker on it. No Biden, no Bloomberg, no Klobuchar, no Steyer.
But Durham is one of the most diverse and progressive cities in the state. There is no way that the mood on the ground here represents how North Carolina Democrats feel as a whole, and even though I’ve lived here for all but four years of my life, in both rural and urban areas, I’d be lying if I claimed to know where the state was at politically.
In the past decade or so, North Carolina has become one of the most contestable states in electoral politics. Barack Obama won it in the 2008 general election by less than half a percentage point, only to lose it to Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s vote totals were higher than Obama’s ever were, yet Donald Trump beat her there by a margin of 3.66 percent. That same year, though, the Democratic challenger for governor, Roy Cooper, narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent. Democratic performance in the state may also be artificially deflated thanks to the Republican-controlled legislature’s efforts to suppress the minority vote, so it’s anyone’s guess as to where the state truly leans politically. The only thing that’s certain is that in North Carolina, Democrats beat Republicans in some races, and Republicans beat Democrats in other races.
The results of the North Carolina primary may offer a hint as to which type of voter can actually help the Democrats win the state this November. Is it those who, as Sanders believes, do not usually participate in the political process but are inspired to do so by a candidate offering a transformative vision? Or is it someone who’s already a voter that they can lure away from the other side? As someone who worked on a Democratic campaign in 2016 (full disclosure: it was my dad’s) and through that experience, got to watch Hillary Clinton’s state-level campaign work up close, I can confirm that the Democrats really want that hypothetical voter to be “undecided” or a straight-up Republican. Part of this has to do with a lack of imagination on the Democrats’ part, and part of it has to do with math. By turning a Trump supporter into a Democratic voter, you’ve taken a vote away from Trump while notching one for yourself; if you convince someone who doesn’t usually vote to vote for your candidate, you’ve only increased your vote margin by one.
However, North Carolina is a rapidly growing state, and its electorate is kind of a black box right now. According to the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the state has added an impressive 1.1 million registered voters since the 2016 election, and the amount of unaffiliated voters here has increased from 29 to 43 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of registered Democrats has declined from 39 to 30, and registered Republicans dropped from 32 percent of voters down to 26. North Carolina’s Democratic primary offers same-day registration to early voters, meaning that no matter what your political affiliation, if you live in the state and are of voting age, you can go to your nearest polling place, register as a Democrat, and vote in the primary right now. It is entirely possible that Bloomberg, who is essentially campaigning on a platform of, “Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar are all gonna fuck this up, right?” appeals to large numbers of those unaffiliated voters, as well as older, more moderate Democrats and Republicans who aren’t super pumped on Trump.
These types of voters, the truly moderate and/or truly undecided, definitely exist; it’s really a question of how many of them there actually are, and if they would prefer their nominee to be Bloomberg, another racist billionaire with autocratic tendencies over Sanders, a self-declared Democratic Socialist who many Democratic insiders fear will cause the party’s down-ballot candidates to lose their races. The rationale for this anti-Sanders argument, as far as I can tell, is that because Sanders openly calls himself a socialist, Trump and his partisans will gleefully claim that a Bernie Sanders presidency would turn the United States into a communist dictatorship. On the other hand, Trump routinely accuses centrist Democrats of being socialists, while the racist Fox News talking head and pro-Trump blogger Pamela Geller compared Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Pol Pot just a couple weeks ago, so this seems like something that’s going to happen no matter who’s at the top of the ticket.
Though Sanders famously has famously given more or less the same speech since he was first elected to Congress in 1991, it’s a good speech, one that he’s iterated on over the years, swapping little bits in and out to fit the context. Once you’ve watched it a few times on YouTube and then get in a room with a bunch of other people who have also watched it a few times on YouTube, it sort of feels like you’re at a rock concert. Everybody knows where the pauses are and cheers accordingly; everybody knows where he’s going to throw in a joke and starts laughing before he can even get to the punchline; everybody knows that the first time everybody interrupts him by chanting “Bernie!” over and over again, he’s going to cut them off by saying, “No! The message of our campaign is, ‘Us, not me,’” and that this is probably the reason that everybody started chanting his name in the first place.
Lately, the Bernie speech has included a bit acknowledging the opaque mass that is the Democratic electorate, specifically the sizable number of Democrats for whom defeating Trump is their number-one issue. “I know that not everybody in North Carolina agrees with everything I say,” he told the crowd in Durham. “I get it. But I hope we can all agree that a person like [Trump] should not win a second term.” It seems to me that these are the type of people that Bloomberg, with his experience both managing successful private businesses as well as serving as the mayor of New York City, is banking are out there, just waiting for someone to take the keys from Trump and serve as a steady hand on the wheel for a few years. But while it’s understandable to desire competence in a national leader, the notion of “able to beat Trump” is sort of separate from that. If you are a member of what The Onion recently joked is the “People-Who-Will-Vote-for-Anybody” bloc of the party, then you’re just as liable to get excited about someone who other people are excited about, because their excitement signals that there’s something going on that you should get hip to. (To his credit, I guess, Bloomberg is aggressively courting this group through enlisting one of the Fyre Festival dudes to get a bunch of Instagram influencers to make memes for him, though the campaign failed to recruit The Fat Jew, who publicly disclosed he’d been approached to meme for Mike and proceeded to call him “a colossal shitbag.”)
If nothing else, there is one thing that Sanders has going for him in North Carolina: the data from the Carolina Population Center indicates that 61 percent of the state’s new voters are under 30 — an age group that supports the septugenarian’s candidacy overwhelmingly, along with that of Warren. After Sanders finished speaking, he descended from the dais and onto the floor, shaking hands and taking selfies with supporters, who followed him in a mass as he went from one side of the room to the other, trailing him like a pile of iron shavings being led by a magnet.