By Jim Buchanan
When history looks back on the March primary in North Carolina, one footnote might be that “Bernie’s last stand” took place in Jackson County and Western North Carolina.
Politics go their own way in the mountains of the Southern Appalachians. During the Civil War the border counties of WNC and East Tennessee had pronounced pro-Union leanings, and for the decades that followed the war those same areas favored the Republican Party, bucking the “Solid South” dominance of the Democratic Party.
That independent streak continued on this month when Democratic and Unaffiliated voters cast their votes for the Super Tuesday contest.
Super Tuesday was effectively the end of Bernie Sanders’ presidential hopes. Sanders was wiped out by Joe Biden in the South. National media have been pointing out that Sanders won only 10 counties combined across Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
It was an astounding turn in a brief political span that saw Sanders as being on the cusp of being the potential nominee to Michael Bloomberg’s rise and fall and Biden’s resurgence.
But as Chris Cooper, chair of Western Carolina University’s Political Science Department points out, Sanders really won 11 counties in the South, plus a couple of cities in Virginia (cities aren’t technically in counties in some places in Virginia).
The total of 11 came because Jackson County was added to the Sanders column in the official canvass.
Sanders took Jackson by one vote, 1,868 to 1,867.
“It is the closest result in the country,” Cooper said. “As for what pushed Sanders over the top, Cullowhee made the difference.”
Sanders rolled in Cullowhee, with 626 votes to Biden’s 246. The only other precinct carried by Sanders was Qualla, 217-198.
“Cullowhee tends to be the most left-leaning precinct in Jackson County, and we can certainly see the influence of the WCU early polling place where Unaffiliated voters tended to show up, but chose the Democratic primary,” Cooper said. “It’s not much of a stretch to assume that most of those Unaffiliated voters chose Sanders over the establishment Biden candidacy. With that said, with just one vote separating the winner and loser, literally any voter, regardless of geography could have made the difference. If nothing else, this is a good reminder of why your vote counts.”
Cooper pointed out the geographic clustering of voters who swung for Sanders in the mountains. Three of the WNC counties he carried border Tennessee.
“It’s important to note that all five counties that Sanders won in N.C. are in WNC,” Cooper said. “Also, two of the three counties that he won in Tennessee were in the East. You put all of that together and seven of the 11 counties that Sanders won in the South so far are in Western North Carolina/East Tennessee. We saw similar patterns in the 2016 primary where Sanders did much better in the West than in any other area of the state. This is also the area of the state where Trump did the best – clearly anti-establishment candidates tend to do well in the mountains.”
Coronavirus impacting politics
Politics is a very secondary story of the day when the nation is in the grips of a pandemic and wrenching economic dive, but the two go together in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, which includes Jackson County.
The district is without a representative since incumbent Mark Meadows departed to become President Trump’s chief of staff, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“While (the vacancy) is unlikely to matter in terms of policymaking (few if any bills pass Congress by just one vote), members of Congress do a lot more than policymaking,” Cooper said. “Casework and constituency service requests take up a great deal of staff and legislator time. And, in times of national crisis like this one, it stands to reason that constituents may need help from their member of Congress now more than ever.”
Moe Davis won the Democratic primary in March to advance to the November race, but Henderson County’s Madison Cawthorn and Lynda Bennett of Haywood County are in a runoff to represent the Republican Party on the ticket. That runoff election, originally set for May 12, has been rescheduled for June 23 due to coronavirus concerns.
Cooper says the news cycle being dominated by coronavirus makes it hard for political hopefuls to get a message out.
“Americans only have a certain amount of bandwidth for politics, news and information.” Cooper said. “Right now that bandwidth is being spent almost exclusively on the coronavirus and the changes to our lives and routines that have followed. This has introduced uncertainty into every part of our lives – including politics and elections. We can expect that all of this uncertainty will be a disadvantage to upstart candidates like Madison Cawthorn who need to get the word out. The winner of the first primary wins the second primary about 70 percent of the time and every day Covid-19 rules the news cycle is another day that makes it less likely that Madison Cawthorn can upset Lynda Bennett.”
Cooper also pointed out the impact of the pandemic on the top of the national ticket. “Conventional wisdom holds that the single most important factor in predicting presidential elections is the economy. Or, as James Carville once said, ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Trump’s re-election odds are certainly going to ride on the economy, and the recent economic freefall is likely to be a boon for Biden and a bust for Trump, unless something changes quickly.”