Reading the Elon Poll reminded me of a story from early in my career. It also reminded me how urban areas differ from rural ones. The story has lessons for people running for office this year, too.

Twenty years ago, at the urging of a political friend, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asked me to help them protect one of their incumbents in a primary race during the 1998 midterm election. Congresswoman Eva Clayton faced a challenge from state Representative Linwood Mercer. At the time, the DCCC and Clayton’s team were having a difficult time finding a reliable voter file. Back then, many rural counties still kept their records on 3 x 5 cards and there was no standardization of record keeping.

Clayton was North Carolina’s first African-American woman to serve in Congress. Her district, NC-01, spread over much of the northeastern portion of the state. Mercer was a white man whose state house district fell within the boundaries of much of Clayton’s territory.  Still, Mercer’s quest seemed like a fool’s errand given Clayton’s incumbency and the racial make up of the district.

When I finally found a voter file that I believed to be accurate, the numbers showed that the likely turnout in the off-year primary was higher than primaries in presidential years.  The mail consultant who was most interested in the targeting and the DCCC didn’t believe the numbers at first. However, when I assembled the election return totals, they showed the same thing. Nobody could figure out why.

As I started digging through election results, I noticed one common theme: turnout was up in any county that had contested sheriff primaries. I also noticed that the increase of voters was disproportionally white. Mercer clearly had noticed the same trend. Throughout the district that year, counties had contested sheriff primaries with one white candidate and one black candidate.

Back then, Democratic primaries were closed, meaning that only registered Democrats could vote in them. Many white voters kept their Democratic registration in order to vote in primaries even though they regularly voted Republican in general elections. Those were the Jessecrats who created a state that elected Jim Hunt governor four times and sent Jesse Helms to the US Senate for five terms.

Mercer bet that he could get the white surge voters who were coming out to support white sheriff candidates to vote for him for Congress. We never found if he was right. As is typical of North Carolina, just before the primary, the Congressional districts were found to be unconstitutional. The legislature moved the Congressional primaries to September while allowing the rest of the primaries to proceed in May. Without the increased white voters showing up for sheriff races, Clayton easily defeated Mercer.

I learned that in off-year Democratic primaries in rural counties, local races, particularly sheriff’s contests, were driving the electorate more than top-of-the-ticket contests. Race was a driving, if not determining, factor in those elections. The emotion behind racial politics increased turnout above those of presidential year primaries when governor and Council of State races were also on the ballot.

Today, both Democratic and Republican primaries are open, meaning unaffiliated voters can choose in which primary to vote. Many, if not most, of those white voters have switched their registration to either unaffiliated or Republican. Still, judging from the Elon Poll, rural residents still pay more attention to those local contests than people in urban areas. And race still matters.

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