CHARLOTTE – When Barack Obama launched his vaunted ground game in North Carolina during the 2008 Democratic primary, most analysts and pundits assumed he would pull up shop as soon as the polls closed and cede the state in the general election. After all, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976, North Carolina had been reliably Republican at the presidential level for almost 50 years. Even having Senator John Edwards (D-NC) on the ticket didn’t move votes for John Kerry. But Obama doubled-down on his investment and eked out a victory by14,000 votes over John McCain in November of 2008.
Now, as the Democratic National Convention starts here today, Obama’s poll numbers have held up remarkably well in the state, and he is effectively tied with Mitt Romney. And while the Tar Heel state is a must-win for Romney, it is merely one of several paths the president could take to getting the 270 electoral votes needed for reelection.
The Obama campaign is putting tremendous resources into the state — 49 field offices, hundreds of paid staff and thousands of volunteers. And they are of course also hosting the party’s convention here, providing another opportunity for organizing Obama-friendly people in the state.
“My friends can’t imagine Obama beating Romney in North Carolina,” says veteran North Carolina Republican political strategist Carter Wrenn. “All I hear is ‘Obama can’t win.’ When you look at the polling data, it all says ‘close election.’ And when I look at the two campaigns, my experience says that Obama has got a little more momentum and that he’s sort of found his groove. I think Romney is still searching for it.”
Obama is expected to see some drop-off in the white vote here compared to 2008, causing some veteran political strategists to cast him as the underdog. And the jobless rate here, at 9.6 percent, is significantly higher than the 8.3 percent nationally.
But a few factors are also working in the Democrats’ favor. Scholars estimate the state’s number of minority voters (black, Hispanic, Asian, or voters who cast their race as “other”) has grown by four percentage points in the last four years, and all of these groups are likely to heavily favor the president over Romney. If the race comes down to which party has the best turnout operation, the millions Obama and his team invested here both in 2008 and this year could make a marginal difference in the president’s favor.
Unlike in Pennsylvania, there is no voter ID law here that could result in a substantial number of black or young voters not being able to cast legal ballots. The state’s huge black population (about 20 percent of eligible voters are black here and more than 40 percent of Obama voters in 2008 were African-American) is a major advantage for the president, because polls show black voters are more motivated than virtually any other voting bloc.