In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate in more than three decades to carry North Carolina.
This week, as President Obama heads back to North Carolina to accept his party’s nomination, polls show that he may be hard-pressed to repeat his Tar Heel State success of four years ago.
But in the state lies an opportunity for Obama, political analyst Charlie Cook said Monday during a poll briefing in Charlotte, where the Democratic National Convention opens Tuesday.
With GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s road to the White House perhaps contingent on winning North Carolina, Cook said, the Obama campaign can force Republicans to spend a lot in the state.
“They can tie up a lot of money here,” Cook said, money that could go to Romney’s efforts in dead-heat battleground states like Ohio and Iowa. That’s especially true, of course, if Obama can keep Romney’s advantage in North Carolina in the low single digits.
Recent polls, including two released Monday, have Romney either holding a slight lead over Obama, or have the two in a dead heat in the state.
Poll results released Monday by Elon University/Charlotte Observer had Romney leading Obama, 47 percent to 43 percent. Survey results from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling also released Monday, had the two candidates tied.
Elon surveyors detected a bit of a convention bounce for Romney; PPP did not.
North Carolina is particularly interesting to keep an eye on because it embodies the ongoing transition of a Southern state, electorally and culturally speaking, to a mid-Atlantic state.
“It’s a state in flux,” Cook said during a briefing about the Elon University poll results, on the road to where Virginia has been heading more rapidly, and Georgia is going, albeit more slowly.
“States in the South that are changing are those with a lot of out-of-state-people moving in,” he said. “A lot are not from the South, and they vote differently.” The Charlotte area, for example, grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than any other urban area of 1 million or more people, according to U.S. Census data.
Political analyst David Gergen, also at the Monday event, said he’s not sure North Carolina has “changed enough for Barack Obama this time out.” The state, he says, remains in most analysts’ toss-up category, but suggested it may be time to make it “lean Romney.”
For all the noise made out about African-American voter turnout in 2008, the Elon pollsters say that it’s the white vote that has been making the difference in North Carolina.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry lost the white vote badly here, 73 percent to 27 percent. Obama, on his way to wining the state, won 35 percent of the white vote, considered the rule-of-thumb threshold for electoral success.
But here’s the key: 700,000 new white voters turned out in 2008, compared with 127,000 new African-American voters. So African-Americans as a percentage of the 2008 North Carolina presidential electorate actually declined to 23 percent from 26 percent in 2004.
“The white vote,” said Taylor Batten, editorial page editor of the Charlotte Observer, “has more effect on the outcome.”
Obama picked up around 600,000 more votes than Kerry, he said, most of them white.
Right now? Batten says the poll shows Obama currently attracting 32 percent of the white vote in North Carolina, with 9 percent undecided.
In North Carolina the race remains in the same place it was in early June, after a long summer and despite more than $50 million in advertising, says Observer political columnist Rob Christensen.