News & Views » News Feature


Anatomy of an Electoral Massacre

Looking back, it's pretty obvious why Democrat Parks Helms, the grandfather of the local Democratic Party, felt comfortable enough to take a 10-day vacation to Italy during the crucial month before the election. He obviously knew something the Republicans wouldn't learn about until after Nov. 2.

The boom didn't hit until election night, when the shock among Republicans was palpable. It seemed unfathomable that the Democrats had swept all three at-large county commission seats in a year when George Bush had dominated North Carolina. Little did local Republicans know that Democrats had fought an under-the-radar electoral ground war of epic proportions since at least February -- and that they were now its unwitting victims.

The effort was so successful, Mecklenburg County elected every Democrat running countywide in partisan races. At 52 percent, says Democratic strategist Tom Chumley, John Kerry's percentage of the vote in Mecklenburg County was the highest for a Democratic Presidential candidate since 1944 -- higher than that posted by Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. That's a pretty amazing turnaround when you consider that Bush won in Mecklenburg County in 2000.

How did they do it?

Seven months ago, you'd have thought this was a battleground county in a battleground state. With polls showing Kerry closing in on Bush in North Carolina, the national Democratic 527 army quietly descended upon Mecklenburg County and other urban areas in the state, trying to narrow the gap for Kerry.

During Spring and Summer, the national Democratic organization America Coming Together (ACT) hired the civil rights voter registration group ACORN to register tens of thousands of new Democratic voters in this county and across the state. But at the time, only the folks down at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections took notice.

Late this summer, when Creative Loafing asked Deputy Director Jo Winkler if anything stuck out to her about the coming election, she wrote the word "ACORN" on a piece of paper. This is the group she'd look into, she said, because they seemed to be registering so many people.

By early fall, when Bush pulled ahead here and North Carolina started looking unwinnable for Kerry, the groups largely pulled out and relocated to Florida and Ohio, where the real electoral battle raged. But by then the work that would eventually result in a Democratic sweep of the County Commission, and ultimately of the county ballot, was done.

But the work ACT and ACORN did was only the beginning. When Mecklenburg Democrats began planning their strategy for this election two years ago, they knew the state would probably go for Bush, so they didn't count on getting national help from a Democratic presidential campaign that might or might not write off North Carolina. They'd have to prepare to counter a heavy get-out-the-vote effort here by the Bush campaign by themselves. So they started early. Real early.

Enter Democratic strategist Carl Clark, mastermind of a get- out-the-vote effort the local party called "Reclaim the American Dream." (Howard Dean must have swiped that from them, they insist, not the other way around.)

To properly appreciate the power of the voter mobilization program Clark has perfected over the years, you need only look at the electoral carnage that resulted in the other county in which he tried it this year.

Watauga County sided with the Union during the Civil War and has been solidly Republican every since. Today, as in the past, Republican voters still outnumber Democrats there. But for the first time in decades, three Democrats swept the countywide commission race in Watauga, just like in Mecklenburg.

Needless to say, Clark started early in Watauga, too. Back in 2002, Clark began sending Democratic workers door to door. They'd visit trailer parks in Watauga, says Mecklenburg County Democrat spokesman and strategist Tom Chumley, and ask people what the party could do for them. At one trailer park, for instance, the water was so bad, people had to boil it before they could use it. Party workers took the situation up with the management and got it fixed. Then they came back and followed up with people, registering them as Democrats and encouraging them to vote.

Clark started a similar effort in Mecklenburg around March. Rather than just focus their energies on heavily Democratic precincts like they do most years, the party dug deeper, going door to door in "tier two" Democrat precincts it hadn't fully focused its attention on in years.

First, the voter lists had to be cleaned up. They needed to know where the Democrats lived and who had moved so their efforts wouldn't be wasted. So they went door to door, painstakingly making personal contact with voters they usually don't reach out to systematically. In the process, they scrubbed voters who had moved from their lists, registered new Democrats, and collected phone numbers and emails. They also targeted newly registered Democrat voters. By election day, they had personally contacted every new Democrat voter in the county at least once.

By August, the good news came. Although the Kerry campaign would be pulling its commercials from the state's airwaves, they'd still be running a joint voter turnout campaign called "NC Victory" in partnership with the campaigns of US Senate Candidate Erskine Bowles and Governor Mike Easley.

By August, said Chumley, the combined national and local forces working the streets of this county were knocking on 500 to 600 doors a day. Russell Fergusson, the regional coordinator for NC Victory, says that a small army of between 200 and 300 volunteers, many of them college students or recent graduates, began making daily phone calls to voters. Many of these volunteers treated the experience as an unpaid internship, putting in 40 to 60 hours a week. Between August and the election, they made about 105,000 phone calls.

By the fall, Clark had amassed a database of phone numbers and email addresses. Clark used software to match the thousands of voters he had email addresses for with lists of voters who lived within a quarter mile of them. The party then sent these voters personalized emails asking them to ask their neighbors to vote Democratic. Clark estimates the party touched 25,000 people this way.

By the Saturday before the election, Clark's lists were polished and the party knew exactly whose doors needed knocking on the most. Saturday alone, says Chumley, the party knocked on 17,000 doors and made sure voters had rides to the polls. also showed up close to the election with at least a hundred volunteers who went door-to-door, working to turn voters out.

On election day, says Fergusson, his organization knocked on 40,000 doors. The organization was so confident of its work that by late afternoon on election day, Ferguson's volunteers had switched their focus to making get-out-the-vote calls to voters in Western states in other time zones.

Chumley thinks that the muscle and legwork his party did here ultimately made the difference on election day.

"I know Ruth Samuelson didn't knock on 17,000 doors the weekend before the election," said Chumley.

Most political observers thought that Samuelson, a popular Republican county commissioner who gave up her district seat to compete for one of the three at-large seats, was sure to win. Instead, she was beaten by Democrat Wilhelmenia Rembert, a controversial school board member who lost an at-large school board race last year, and by Democrat Jennifer Roberts, a political newcomer.

When Samuelson heard some of the details about the scope of the Democrat voter effort here this year, she said it made her feel better about her loss. The Republican effort wasn't as extensive as the Democrats', she acknowledged.

John Aneralla, who worked on the GOP's get-out-the-vote effort, says that as early voting totals came in, it became apparent that the party needed to put more emphasis on early voting, which Democratic candidates ultimately dominated.

"We tried to scramble toward the end to have people at the early voting polls to hand out literature," said Aneralla.

He says the party did door-to-door and phone bank work too. He thinks the party probably contacted 150,000 voters in the weeks before the election, but couldn't say for sure. But he also says that as it became apparent Bush would win North Carolina, the Bush campaign pulled some of their people out and sent them to other states.

The Democrats acknowledge they won't have near the same resources at their disposal in the 2006 commission race, when there won't be any big, sexy statewide races to pull out voters, but they hope some of the work they've done in this election will help their party secure a hold on local politics. Clark, who thinks this election was the beginning of a solid Democratic trend for Mecklenburg County, says he plans to gear up again for 2006. Other Democrats aren't so sure. It's possible they could lose their hold on the commission in 2006, they say. Only time will tell. Either way, local politicians have seen the power of a well-organized voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign.

Contact Tara Servatius at

Add a comment