Can Obama Win North Carolina Again?


On July 18, 111 days before the November election, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx arrived at Obama headquarters for a special announcement. Flanked by a dozen campaign volunteers, Foxx explained how the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the first in the state's history, would boost the president's organizing efforts in this crucial battleground state. 

"From the day North Carolina was selected," Foxx said, "it was clear that the Obama campaign was committed to delivering the Tarheel State for President Obama once again." Foxx described the convention as a "massive organizing opportunity to recruit, to train and to engage more North Carolina volunteers than ever before." To that end, he announced, volunteers who gave nine hours of their time in three shifts would be guaranteed a seat at Bank of America Stadium when Obama speaks on September 6.

At 41, Foxx is the youngest mayor in Charlotte's history and only its second African-American mayor (the first, Harvey Gantt, lost two bitter Senate contests to Jesse Helms in the 1990s). Foxx has become Obama's most visible surrogate in the state and an evangelist for the type of grassroots organizing that propelled Obama to victory four years ago. "In my previous campaigns for city council, we didn't focus as much on phone banking and door knocking and grassroots politics," Foxx told me. "We took a lot of the mechanics from the Obama 2008 campaign and applied them to my 2009 mayoral race and my 2011 re-election race."

In 2011, Foxx was returned to office with 70 percent of the vote, and Democrats swept all four city council races, holding a nine-to-two majority for the first time in Charlotte's history. The races were viewed by the Obama campaign as a test run for 2012. Foxx's campaign, boosted by Obama volunteers from 2008, made ten times as many phone calls to voters as his opponent and knocked on 25,000 doors. "This was a really good wake-up call for the Republican Party," GOP consultant Jessica Wood would tell the Charlotte Observer. "We were clearly just out-organized."

North Carolina was the second-closest state in 2008 — Obama won it by 14,177 votes — and had the largest spike in voter turnout compared with 2004, due largely to a surge in African-American and young voters. Today, the Obama campaign wants to prove that its 2008 squeaker was no fluke by forcing the Romney campaign to vigorously defend the state in a way that John McCain did not.

Political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress have described this election as pitting "demographics versus economics." The country's changing demographics favor Obama, but the sluggish economy benefits Romney. Nowhere is this pattern as stark as in North Carolina. Demographically, state's growing coalition of young voters, minorities, white-collar professionals, and progressive transplants from the Midwest and Northeast favor Obama. People of color accounted for 61 percent of the state's 1.5 million new residents over the past decade. Since 2008, the black and Hispanic share of eligible voters in North Carolina has grown by 2.5 percent, while the percentage of the white vote has decreased by a similar margin. North Carolina has the largest population of African-Americans of any swing state, and it's also the battleground state where Obama is least reliant on white voters. Of the 263,000 people who moved to North Carolina in 2010, 65 percent came from states that supported Obama in 2008. In other words, Obama's local coalition has grown since 2008, while the Republicans' has shrunk.

Economically, however, North Carolina has the country's fourth-highest unemployment rate, which has stayed above 9 percent for forty-one months. In June, the unemployment rate increased in eighty-four of the state's 100 counties. With Obama winning 54 percent of voters who said they were "very worried" about the economy in 2008, it's not hard to imagine this figure reversed in Romney's favor in 2012.

All of which suggests that the vote in North Carolina could be as close as it was the last time around. Twenty-one of the twenty-two polls conducted by the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling have shown the presidential race within three points. In June, Vice President Joe Biden told donors that Romney and his allies would spend $800 million "carpet-bombing" the president with negative TV ads. "There's only one way to counter that," Biden said. "That's to put together the single most consequential ground game in the history of American politics. We did it last time. It's got to be better this time."

At the beginning of 2008, it didn't even look like there'd be much of a presidential campaign in North Carolina. One poll that January found McCain leading Obama by fourteen points. "North Carolina was put in play not on its own volition, but because the Obama people came in and put it in play," says Ferrel Guillory, an expert on state politics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. When the late Democratic primary in May 2008 unexpectedly clinched the nomination for Obama, volunteer groups spontaneously sprouted all over the state. Obama visited North Carolina so many times — twenty stops total — that Governor Mike Easley joked, "'Barack' is Hawaiian for 'Bubba.'" A week before the election, the Obama campaign had fifty offices in the state and 23,000 volunteers, who knocked on 945,000 doors and made 3 million phone calls. Of the 629,000 new voters registered from January to November, Democrats outnumbered Republicans five to one. As a result, Democrats won close races for governor, the US Senate and the House of Representatives.

An avalanche of misfortune followed. Democrats lost control of the state legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction, targeted by an unprecedented influx of conservative Super PAC cash and replaced by a slew of Tea Party Republicans who promptly gerrymandered the legislative lines to preserve their fragile majority. Governor Easley pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations. His successor, Bev Perdue, became the most unpopular governor in the country, a victim of the state's economic woes and her own ethical mishaps, and announced that she would not seek re-election. Native son John Edwards endured a lengthy and lurid trial in Greensboro. The state Democratic Party was rocked by accusations that its executive director had sexually harassed a young staffer. Today there are 118,000 fewer registered North Carolina Democrats than there were in 2008, compared with only 21,000 fewer Republicans (the number of unaffiliated voters has grown by 184,000).

Given this "string of blows," says Chris Kromm, executive director of the Durham-based Institute for Southern Studies, "the fact that the presidential race is still within the margin of error is a cause for some optimism." North Carolina used to vote reliably Democratic on the local level but Republican for president. Now that dynamic has been reversed. Democrats hope that in 2012, the Obama campaign will be the tide that lifts all boats.

State Representative Tricia Cotham told me that July is the "no-politics month" in North Carolina, but I found a hub of activity at Obama headquarters the night of Foxx's visit. The downtown office, filled with campaign memorabilia and pictures of Democratic icons like FDR and Truman, was teeming with staff and volunteers on the phone, recruiting past Obama supporters. A huge calendar listed notable voter registration opportunities: a local soul food festival, American Idol auditions, the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.

In 2008, the Obama campaign had 625 volunteer teams of four to six people, each overseen by a staffer, covering every one of the state's 2,762 precincts. This year the goal is to have 20,000 volunteer field offices nationwide, run from the comfort of an iPhone. Yet a central unanswered question of this election is whether the Obama campaign can mobilize voters as it did in 2008, which saw the largest voter turnout since 1968. Forty-five million Americans who voted in 2008 didn't vote in 2010 — the majority of them young, black, Hispanic or progressive voters. Obama's numbers have steadied since then and the economy has slowly improved, but recent surveys still show that young voters and Democrats overall are less excited about voting now than they were in 2008. "A lot of Obama's fate will come down to how well he can remobilize his coalition from 2008," Teixeira says.

The campaign is betting it can lure remaining holdouts back into the fold, either by touting Obama's accomplishments or by emphasizing the dangers of GOP domination in Washington or Raleigh. (The Republican-controlled state legislature, which seems to be taking its cues from House Republicans, has an approval rating of 22 percent.) Fear can be as good a motivator as hope. This time around, Obama's campaign feels less like a movement and more like, well, a campaign.

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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