Chris Reed: Barack Obama works his magic in a battleground state

The state has come a long way since racial segregation. Chris Reed reports on the Democrats’ fight against apathy.

A battle has been raging in America.

Two proud, storied organisations slugging it out. Deadlocked as they approached the final battle.

Baseball's World Series, won last night by the Chicago Cubs/Cleveland Indians in the final, decisive seventh game.

That's all anyone cared about in the hotel bar in Raleigh, North Carolina. The ever-present attack ads during the relentless commercial breaks prompted the odd comment but little debate.

It was the same In Tampa the night before. Pockets of politics over the beers and burgers, not much more.

Maybe I'm staying in the wrong kind of places. Maybe they've all voted. Or maybe three days of following the electoral circus have provided a false reality. The people at the rallies are engaged already.

Apathy is the biggest threat to both parties but particularly the Democrats.

They're desperate to guard against complacency as Donald Trump continues to close the gap on Hillary Clinton.

That's one of the key messages from Barack Obama when he addresses a 10,000-plus crowd in Chapel Hill outside Raleigh on a freakishly hot November afternoon.

LISTEN: AP's Michelle Rindels in Nevada and Politico's Mark Caputo in Florida speak to Rachel Smalley about the mood in swing states

This the University of North Carolina, the crowd dominated by bright young things voting for the first time.

President Barack Obama is embraced by two women while greeting supporters at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama is embraced by two women while greeting supporters at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Photo / AP

Obama jogs up the steps to the catwalk that leads to the podium on the stage at the Michael Hooker sports fields looking relaxed. The crowd goes wild, although not for long. It's too hot for that, late 20s.

The president's white shirt is unbuttoned. This is not a day for ties. Unless you're part of the presidential protection detail. They're suited and booted. Men with big guns are on a roof, the sun glinting from field glasses sweeping the crowd.

Some of those at the front have waited four hours for the rally to start, five-and-a-half for the main man. Throughout the event there are calls for medical assistance for people who've collapsed in the heat.

Obama is cool as, at it immediately. "I love me some North Carolina," he oozes.
The future of the republic rests on the crowd's shoulders, he says. It sounds like he's channelling Star Wars.

"The fate of the world is teetering, and you, North Carolina, are going to have to make sure that we push it in the right direction."

He urges the young voters to make the most of a rare chance to "shape the arc of history".

Win North Carolina, win the election he promises.

The state has come a long way relatively fast since racial segregation.

It's scarcely believable that it took until the early 1970s for state officials to meet all the requirements of a Supreme Court decision ordering integration of schools. I was alive then and I still feel vaguely young.

Since then the African American vote has helped make it one of the key swing states.
RealClearPolitics has Donald Trump 0.2 of a percentage point ahead of Hillary Clinton in an average of polls where they're the only options for the presidency. Factor in Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Trump and Clinton are tied.

Obama won here in 2008, albeit by 0.32 per cent of the vote, before losing to Mitt Romney four years ago.

The Democrats had success, especially eight years ago, by targeting the urban counties where big wins offset losses elsewhere. Remember, a one-vote majority is all that's needed to secure every member of the all-important Electoral College. No wishy-washy MMP here.

Geographically most of North Carolina remains Republican, but the empowered and engaged African American vote, in particular, has evened things out population-wise.

At the heart of the state is the Research Triangle, an area focused on Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and the universities they contain. The name stems from a business park home to technology companies and other enterprise initiatives.

Obama's speech at Chapel Hill covers all the familiar tropes of the Democrat campaign: the experience, record and work ethic of Clinton, the untested, unpredictability of Trump, the need for consensus.

He finishes with a call to action, a passionate passage referencing restrictions that used to prevent African Americans from voting.

A man sells memorabilia as President Obama holds a rally for Hillary Clinton in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photo / Chris Reed
A man sells memorabilia as President Obama holds a rally for Hillary Clinton in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Photo / Chris Reed

"It was not that long ago that people had to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, or count the bubbles on a bar of soap, or recite the Constitution in Chinese, in order to vote... and we're not going to vote? What's our excuse?"

Despite the advances in North Carolina, a new set of restrictions was only recently stymied.

In 2013, the Republican-controlled state assembly introduced tough new requirements on voters. In July, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned key parts of the legislation, the three-judge panel ruling the law was racially discriminatory.

"In what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State's very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race - specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise," wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, as reported by The Atlantic.

The decision noted that black participation in elections had been rising steadily before the law passed.

"Not coincidentally, during this period North Carolina emerged as a swing state in national elections," Motz wrote.

Video

Obama's comments were the clearest reference to discrimination against African American voters I'd heard since arriving in the US. He also mentioned Trump's failure to immediately reject an endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan.

Trump will stake his claim for the state when he fronts two rallies tomorrow. We'll find out exactly how far North Carolina has come on election day.

* Chris Reed travelled to the US with assistance of the US embassy in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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