GREENSBORO, N.C. -- During a quick stop here on Friday as part of his nationwide Register For Change bus tour, Democratic National Committee Chair Gov. Howard Dean told the lunch-time crowd gathered at Governmental Plaza that North Carolina is key to carrying Sen. Barack Obama to the White House. "If we win North Carolina, Obama will be the next president," said Dean, followed by applause from spectators and Obama campaign volunteers.
And Dean may be right. Although no Democratic presidential candidate has won the state since 1976, Democrats today seem encouraged by the record turnout in the state's 2008 primary. Nearly 1.6 million voters went to the polls in the May Democratic primary, a number that exceeds the total votes received by John Kerry (1.5 million) in the 2004 general election, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. In his Greensboro speech, Dean cited this statistic as a sign of a strong North Carolina Democratic party and Obama's appeal among voters. A 2007 State Board of Elections report showed that a majority of North Carolina voters (45%) identify as Democrats, with 34% as Republicans.
Dean may also be banking on that fact that more Americans identify themselves as Democrats (37%), according to a June 2008 Gallup poll, than Republicans (28%). The theory goes: Registering more voters equals more Democrats. That was the purpose of his Greensboro visit.
The Obama campaign and the Democratic Party have launched a "100 Days" canvassing effort to register as many new Democrats as possible before the November election. Dean's visit to Greensboro was sandwiched between stops in Raleigh, the state capitol, and Charlotte before his red-white-and blue bus heads to Georgia. The North Carolina Democratic Party is using Dean's visit as an opportunity to energize volunteers in cities like Greensboro as they begin registering new voters and attempting to build momentum and support for Obama. Canvassing officially begins Saturday, July 26.
Dean said the key to success is committed volunteers. "Here's what it will take. It's all of you going door to door and encouraging people to register to vote."
If the number of ready-and-willing clipboard-toting volunteers present at the Greensboro rally is any indication, the Democrats are off to a good start.
Wayne Simpson, a retired postal worker and Vietnam veteran, is one of those volunteers. Dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with a TIME magazine cover of Obama, a straw hat decked out with campaign buttons and a homemade sign, it was clear whom Simpson supported. "I'm with Obama 100 percent," he said. Simpson will be registering voters in the coming weeks and volunteering in the Greensboro campaign headquarters. Past Democratic presidential candidates never inspired Simpson to volunteer much, he said, but Obama is different. "He has my wholehearted support. I believe I can make a difference."
That same sentiment was expressed by high school classmates and friends Rachel Ryding and Sarah Goff. They were ready to sign up new voters -- but weren't old enough to cast a ballot themselves.
"If I could [vote], I would," said Ryding, a 17-year-old rising senior at Greensboro's Grimsley High School (she turns 18 in April 2009). This is Ryding's first experience as a political campaign volunteer, something she was encouraged to do by Goff. "I thought it would be interesting," said Ryding.
Goff's own inspiration came from her mother, who helped register voters as a teen during the 1976 election. "My mom suggested I do something since I'm so passionate about this election. I'm always talking about it," said Goff. "I know I can't vote myself, but I can do my part." Goff, 16, also a rising senior at Grimsley, volunteers twice a week in the local Obama campaign office.
Both Goff and Ryding say they would vote for Obama.
Volunteer Anna Gerow of Elon, North Carolina, has been doing her part to get more people involved and excited about politics for 20 years. For the last four years, she has served as president of the Democratic Women of Alamance County. "I think anything we can do to bring people together in politics, it's a good thing," she said, referring to the Register For Change bus tour.
Gerow says she always keeps voter registration forms in her car, just in case she's in a restaurant or elsewhere and meets someone who isn't yet registered. "I don't let anyone get by," she said. A yellow button pinned to her red blouse with white stars reads "Shut Up and Vote."