LUMBERTON — During the 2008 presidential election, 58 percent of Robeson County voters marked their ballots for Barack Obama, but those who observe county politics say that four years later, the numbers might be much different.
According to the Robeson County Board of Elections, 72 percent of Robeson County’s 75,010 registered voters are registered Democratic, outnumbering Republicans by more than 45,000. But county Republicans say overwhelming support of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Robeson County — at 86 percent, the most robust in North Carolina — is an indicator that many might venture outside of party lines in this year’s election.
“That’s a Republican issue being passed by a historically Democratic county,” said Phillip Stephens, chairman of the county’s Republican Party. “… The support for the amendment demonstrated just how conservative Robeson County Democrats really are.”
Bo Biggs, a Republican and longtime observer of Robeson County politics, said the “overwhelming” support of the amendment will lend an interesting twist to this year’s numbers. Obama announced in May that he supports same-sex marriage, and it is part of the national Democratic Party platform.
“You have to wonder what effect this will have on the Democratic voters,” Biggs said. “Will they split their ticket over the issue or continue to be faithful to the Democratic Party?”
Gay marriage is an issue that John McNeill, chairman of the Robeson County Democratic Party, is tired of hearing Republicans talk about.
“It sounds like to me that they’re a little obsessed with that,” McNeill said. “I appreciate the position, but I think there’s dozens of other issues that are facing the county and the nation.”
Robeson County Democrats are more conservative on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and gun control then are their brethren across the country.
But Jimmy Gilchrist, president of the Robeson County Black Caucus, said the economy is the main issue concerning the county’s 21,741 black voters. He said the caucus has been “turning out the votes.”
“Obama has really secured the African-American vote based on the fact that he has served all the people, not just African Americans,” he said. “… The country was almost at the brink, but he has taken it to a higher level. Unemployment has improved across the country. It can’t happen overnight, but the economy and everything has improved. You can see the shift of progress in every area of his administration.”
Numbers from several polling sites in 2008 show a polarization between the two parties. The large majority of voters at Britt’s Township, East Howellsville, Lumberton No. 1 and Wisharts — overwhelmingly white precincts — turned out for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008, while Fairmont No. 2, Lumberton No. 6 and Red Springs — overwhelmingly black precincts — voted heavy for Obama.
According to Stephens, Obama lost 12 of the county’s 42 precincts in the May 8 Democratic primary — even though he had no opposition, with many voters marking “no preference.” Stephens called that “unprecedented” for an incumbent Democratic president in a historically “blue” county.
Over time, McNeill said, the division in the party lines has narrowed in Robeson County.
“The game is in the trenches, and there’s a lot of folks in Robeson County that are working hard in those trenches,” he said. “We still have a tremendous amount of work to do, and we’re going to do it.”
Biggs said the county has recently supported more “middle-of-the road” candidates, such as Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre and state Sen. Michael Walters, in contrast to the past when candidates were supported only if they were staunch Democrats. Robeson County for the first time ever has a Republican on the Board of Commissioners, and another Republican is trying to win a seat on that board Nov. 6.
“Obviously, Robeson County votes Democrat historically,” Biggs said. “It always has been a traditionally blue county by large majorities in the past, but those majorities have kind of eroded. … Times seem to be changing.”
Ronnie Sutton, a Democrat who served 18 years in the state House and has a law office in Pembroke, said that although the county is “overwhelmingly Democratic,” he believes the county’s voters are more “sophisticated” than they have been in the past, making people more willing to cross party lines and “vote more for the person than just the party.”
“I think Robeson is slowly — and I emphasize slowly — becoming a two-party county like the state has become a two-party state,” he said. “I think people like to see some change, and I think that the quality of the candidates in the Republican Party is improving. When the state was so overwhelmingly Democratic, others didn’t want to get into the race because they knew they would get slaughtered at the polls. But now that qualified people are able to enter the race, you are getting more qualified candidates.”
Sutton added that Lumbee Indians are more willing to cross party lines. According to the Board of Elections, about 34 percent of the county’s registered voters are American Indian.
“Candidates 30 and 40 years ago didn’t have to worry about the (American Indian) community,” Sutton said. “That’s just not the case anymore.”
During the 2008 election, five predominantly American Indian precincts — North Pembroke, South Pembroke, Saddletree, Philadelphus and Prospect — voted 54 percent for Obama, and 46 percent for McCain.
Stephens said “the evidence is clear” that Robeson is becoming a “swing-vote” county.
“If you’re a strong Republican county or strong Democratic county, neither party pays that much attention to you,” Stephens said. “The party in power takes your vote for granted, and the opposition thinks they can’t get your vote.”
Sutton added: “I think society is better off when you have a solid two-party system. … When there is some capability within the two parties, and when it shifts back and forth depending on what candidate is running and not just what party is running, you get a lot more done.”