Can Obama Win North Carolina Again?

From Charlotte I drove up I-77 to meet a group of Obama volunteers in Huntersville, a Republican-leaning suburb fifteen miles north of the city. Guillory attributes Obama's 2008 win in part to the increasing "metropolitanization" of the state; 70 percent of North Carolina's growth over the past decade has been concentrated in the "urban crescent" stretching from Raleigh to Charlotte. (Obama captured two-thirds of the vote in urban areas.) A lot of Obama voters in places like Huntersville came out of the woodwork in 2008.

I reached a middle-class subdivision, where a silver VW Bug sat in the driveway with a "99 percent" sticker above an Obama 2012 sticker. Hosting the event was Janelle Taylor, a 33-year-old Obama "super-volunteer" who works in human resources for a manufacturing company. A dozen people were in her living room, calling past Obama supporters. It was the first event Taylor had hosted in 2012. "There are a lot of new faces," she said. "Some familiar faces too, but most people here tonight are fairly new to me." Explaining why she's supporting Obama again, she echoed the president's own stump speech. "We've gone through some tough times as a nation," she told me. "The economy's been rough. But I feel like Obama pulled us out of a ditch and we're headed in the right direction. The big thing for me is to keep making progress."

Another super-volunteer in attendance was Lawrence Raymer, a gregarious former Air Force weapons control officer and ninth-generation North Carolinian. Raymer became active in politics because of his opposition to the war in Iraq and said he'd made 12,000 calls for Democratic candidates in 2008. His typical week: Monday for Obama, Tuesday for Congressional candidate Harry Taylor, Wednesday for now-Senator Kay Hagan, and so on. "If you can get 10 percent to volunteer, you're doing a good job," Raymer said. If the 2008 campaign was a sprint from start to finish, 2012 feels more like a marathon, with the Obama campaign pacing itself to reach the finish line.

Raymer showed me the list of names on his call sheet. Most were in their twenties and thirties. "The old folks are Jessecrats," he said, referring to the conservative white Democrats who supported Jesse Helms. "The rest are Yankees. The last time there were so many Yankees here, they had on blue uniforms." Raymer laughed uproariously at his Civil War joke. Obama is counting on those "Yankees": native North Carolinians supported McCain in 2008, while Obama won among transplants. Obama also did far better among non-native Democrats, particularly white ones. The North Carolina of today bears little resemblance to the state that sent Helms to the Senate for thirty years.

"The story is North Carolina really becoming a global state in terms of its population demography," says Jim Johnson, a demographic expert at UNC–Chapel Hill, citing an influx that ranges from immigrants to "snowbirds from the Northeast" to "a substantial reverse migration of African-Americans back into the state." Even as the urban centers boomed, thirty-five rural counties saw their death rate exceed the birth rate in 2009. "It's a tale of two states," Johnson says. The Jessecrats are literally dying off.

In 2008, Obama upended many of the dictums of presidential campaigns, particularly the notion that they should spend as much money as possible on television advertising. "In a lot of campaigns, the media gets funded first; then, if you have extra money that comes in, you bolster the field," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said after the election. "We kind of did it in reverse." The Obama campaign spent "under 50 percent" of its budget on the media, Plouffe said, compared with the normal rate of 70 to 75 percent (according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the campaign spent 56 percent of its money on the media and a third on TV). But while Obama outspent McCain by nearly two to one on TV ads in the two months before the election, the campaign also opened 300 more field offices than McCain did. University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket found that by investing in offices in places where the 2004 Kerry campaign hadn't, the Obama campaign generated an additional one to three points for their candidate — enough to turn Florida, Indiana and North Carolina blue in 2008.

Obama won't be able to outspend Romney and his allied Super PACs this time around, which makes the ground game that much more important. The Obama campaign has already been outspent two to one on the airwaves in North Carolina by Romney and conservative groups like Crossroads GPS — a gulf that will likely only grow wider heading into November. Romney has dropped more money on TV ads in Charlotte than in any other swing-state media market except for Tampa, Florida.

But "in an era when campaigns sink more and more money into television advertisements with less and less to show for it," Masket wrote after 2008, "investing more in shoe leather may be a wise decision." Political scientist Donald Green, co-author of Get Out the Vote, found that door-to-door canvassing is the most efficient way to mobilize voters, generating "7 to 9 additional votes for every 100 people you contact." The impact of TV ads, both in convincing people to vote for a particular candidate and in getting them to the polls, is far more uncertain. "Even when the persuasive effect of ads on candidate preference is large, 50 percent of the effect dissipates within the first few days, and 80 percent is gone by the end of the second week," says UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck of findings after the 2000 election.

Of particular salience for Obama is North Carolina's early-voting period, which lasts seventeen days and includes same-day voter registration. "Republicans tend to be more dependable voters than Democrats," says Marc Farinella, Obama's 2008 state director. "So having two to three weeks to turn out sporadic Democratic voters is an enormous advantage." In 2008, Obama beat McCain by 305,000 votes among those who voted early.

During the GOP primary, Romney and his Super PACs chose to bombard his rivals over the airwaves instead of out-organizing them on the ground. Now he's playing a furious game of catch-up, opening twenty "victory offices" in North Carolina so far, half as many as Obama. Local Republicans point out that Romney's campaign is ahead of where McCain's was in 2008. "No one is going to be caught by surprise this time," says former state GOP chair Tom Fetzer. "Republicans in North Carolina are much more energized about voting in 2012 than they were in 2008." Fetzer says that internal polling shows unaffiliated, independent and suburban voters — crucial swing blocs — breaking Romney's way.

After returning from Huntersville, I drove to High Point ("Furniture Capital of the World"), stopping for a famed chopped pork sandwich in Lexington ("Barbecue Capital of North Carolina"), then met up with Brandon Koebbe, a 30-year-old organizer with Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Founded in 2003 and boasting 3 million members, Working America signs up "working-class moderates" who don't have a union job but respond favorably to a populist economic message. Organizers do this the old-fashioned way: knocking on door after door. I tagged along as Brandon canvassed a working-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood of small ranch houses in High Point. The sluggish economy was all too evident: a number of residents were unemployed or on disability pay. They were reluctant to donate any money — most said they had nothing to spare.

We talked to housewives, truck drivers, teachers, cashiers, construction workers and nurses. Jobs and healthcare were the main concerns. Brandon told them about the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would end tax incentives for companies that ship jobs overseas. "We're out here today to keep good jobs in North Carolina, not send them abroad," he said during his pitch. The issue of outsourcing could play a decisive role in the campaign. "North Carolinians are folks who have read over and over and over again about their textile jobs and other manufacturing jobs going overseas," Farinella says. "So it is my expectation that this issue of Romney's role in Bain Capital — and the notion that Bain shipped jobs overseas — is likely to resonate in North Carolina to a greater extent than it even resonates nationally."

After knocking on roughly forty doors in the sweltering heat, Brandon recruited fifteen new members. (Working America signs up two out of every three people it talks to; about half will donate or take some action.) The group plans to reach 20,000 before Labor Day; in the fall, it will reach out and urge them to support President Obama. In a state decided by 14,177 votes in 2008, you never know how many will make the difference.

As Lawrence Raymer puts it, "I think the state is still winnable for Obama, but it's going to be a hell of a fight."


Tags: anthony foxx, charlotte observer, mitt romney, president obama, super pac

    • Ari Berman
    • Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneE...

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