Almost exactly a year ago, a young, charismatic Senator from Illinois came to North Carolina for the first time, right here in Durham. Although certainly not unknown, he was only one in a crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. Catapulted to fame by a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, many nevertheless believed that his paper-thin resume and lack of clout would spell an early death for the upstart campaign, especially when standing against the considerable resources and powers thrown into the presidential bid of Sen. Hillary Clinton.
That Senator from Illinois was of course Barack Obama. Even then, his energy and so-called new approach to politics attracted large crowds, at this particular juncture at NCCU. At the time, he spoke of many of his policy proposals, but predominantly the increasingly unpopular and expensive War in Iraq, an issue that was at the forefront of headlines and most voter's minds. How many of us could have predicted then that the economy would have collapsed by the time Election Day finally rolled around a year later, transforming the electoral landscape and eclipsing all else? How many of us knew then with certainty that Barack Obama would not only win the Democratic nomination, but be the first black man to ascend to the presidency? And how many would have been able to tell you then that North Carolina, once an unequivocally conservative state, would in the next year become a battleground state, commanding both major party candidate's attention and resources? In the newsroom, I can tell you, not many.
Obama's appearance in Durham kicked off a tumultuous year-long campaign with numerous twists and turns, all of which The Chronicle had the privilege of covering. The first of many surprises was North Carolina's primary being of real significance in the extraordinarily long and arduous battle between Clinton and Obama for the Democratic nomination, even after 35 states had already made their own decisions.
Obama's double digit victory in North Carolina's May 6 primary (unfortunately, after the The Chronicle ceased production for the summer) and his narrow loss in Indiana on the same day ultimately helped him seal the deal. He celebrated that night as the polls closed with a beer in a bar in downtown Raleigh, mixing and mingling with supporters. McCain, already the presumptive Republican nominee after beating out rivals Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Guiliani, handily won his primary in the state with 74 percent of the vote.
The race in the Tar Heel State, however, was far from over. As both the Democratic and Republican candidates accepted their party's nominations at their conventions in Denver and St. Paul, with a fair number of Dukies in attendance, their campaigns began in earnest. We watched from a distance as the polls went up and down, running mates were selected and controversies were ignited and diffused. And as the summer waned, it became clear that 2008 would be a very different election season for North Carolina. Obama slowly but surely began opening offices, forcing the McCain camp to follow suit, the airwaves saw an exponential increase in the number of political ads as Election Day drew near, and even the most seasoned pundits scratched their heads regarding what was afoot in a state that had not gone blue since former president Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Take this little gem from Republican strategist Marc Rotterman from a June interview with The Chronicle:
"It's not a practical strategy that Barack is trying to employ.... Barack's values and beliefs are out of tune with the average North Carolinian."
On campus, too, nevertheless, evidence of the heightened political consciousness could be seen in efforts by the Duke Dems and College Republicans to get students to register in the state, where their vote would matter. Volunteers flooded Durham, banging on doors and again, as always, stressing the importance of this year and this state.
We watched with astonishment as Obama, playing the state's changing demographics to his advantage, slowly eroded McCain's lead in the polls. With the economic collapse on Wall Street directing voters' attention away from social issues and to their shrinking wallets, the fact became unavoidable: North Carolina had emerged as a surprise battleground, its 15 electoral votes any one's game, in what all heralded as an historic election year, one which would yield either the nation's first black president or its first woman vice-president.
At The Chronicle, we found ourselves astonished to be driving to all corners of the state to cover the candidates themselves as the leaves reddened and the campaigns showered our once-neglected state with ample amounts of attention. In Greensboro. In Greenville. In Wilmington. In Fayetteville. In Concord. In Raleigh. In Charlotte.
On campus, for the first time, an early voting site allowed a record number of students to cast their ballots with ease and convenience. The excitement leading up to Election Day built to a fever pitch, with celebs and campaign representatives alike making appearances to sway those last-few undecided voters. The youth vote was again given a significant amount of importance tempered with skepticism that indeed the 18 to 24 block would turn out at the polls.
By now, the conclusion of the Nov. 4 election has been well-publicized. Not only did Obama emerge the victor in the nation, but in North Carolina as well, a conclusion no one could have predicted for the Tar Heel State a mere eight weeks ago. Furthermore, all indicators suggest that competitive party politics in North Carolina are here to stay.
Covering the 2008 election as a Local/National editor was a college journalist's dream--to be standing elbow to elbow with Associated Press and New York Times reporters, recording the same events, giving voice to the same moments. We were presented with the incredible opportunity to not only witness history but to document it, in our own words. Even at the expense of a few tenths of our GPA's and countless hours of lost sleep, it was exhilirating, albeit exhausting, and worth every minute.
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