In the coming six months, North Carolina will likely prove to be one of the country’s most exciting battlegrounds in the presidential election.
After winning the state by a margin of less than half a percentage point in 2008, President Barack Obama will have to continue campaigning fiercely in order to achieve a repeat victory.
Recent polls have found Obama neck in neck with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in North Carolina. The Democratic party will rally support by holding its national convention in Charlotte this September, but the results of the 2010 midterm elections and the recent landslide passage of North Carolina’s constitutional marriage amendment suggest that the candidates may be dealing with a more conservative North Carolina.
Those following the 2012 elections should not be so quick to pin North Carolina as a red or blue state based on past election results, however, said Pope McCorkle, visiting lecturer of public policy studies.
“People assume that elections are a perfect reflection of a state’s ideological mood, when it can be more related to the state’s approval of the performance of current candidates—in 2008, Bush, and in 2010, Obama,” he said. “It’s unclear where North Carolina will move now.”
Party fortunes are particularly tangled in North Carolina. The state has only voted Democratic in two of the past 10 presidential elections. Nearly 60 percent of the state legislature is controlled by Republicans. Despite this, the Tar Heel state has a solid history of Democratic governors, electing only two Republicans to the seat in more than a century.
The state’s majority conservative base is unhappy with Obama’s performance and is looking for a change in leadership, said Rob Lockwood, communications director of the North Carolina Republican Party. In 2008, the Republican party was simply unprepared for the extent of North Carolina campaigning by the Obama camp, he added.
“Our unemployment rate—at 9.7 percent—is nearly 2 percent higher than the national average, which is simply unacceptable,” he noted. “Obama has spent an unprecedented amount of time in the state giving speeches, deflecting the fact that the policies he put forward have not achieved the results he promised, or even come close to it.”
Recent North Carolina polls show mixed predictions for November. A May 1 poll by SurveyUSA put the incumbent ahead by four percentage points and a May 16 poll by Public Policy Polling reported his lead at one point. Rasmussen’s May 16 poll, however, found Romney in the lead by eight points.
In the wake of the state’s 60-40 approval of Amendment One and Obama’s subsequent endorsement of same-sex marriage, it is unclear if the incumbent was boosted or damaged by his pro-gay position.
“Those who opposed the amendment were looking for a leader in the White House,” Lockwood said. “President Obama coming out for gay marriage the day after North Carolina voters passed the marriage amendment speaks more to his failure to help out for the cause he believed in.”
But Michael Munger, professor of political science and economics, said Obama’s new stance was not a matter of politicking or vote-mongering.
“Obama didn’t want to go public on the issue, he was forced to,” Munger noted. “To be fair, it is hard to say that it gave him any political benefit. It just made the issue go away.”
The endorsement of gay marriage is unlikely to benefit or hurt Obama politically, Munger said, because people who supported Obama’s new position were likely to vote for him already, and those opposed to the decision were likely opposed to the candidate.
The race is on
The state’s has already become a presidential battleground on issues including job creation and public education reform.
Obama addressed students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill April 24 on education issues. He promoted cut extensions to student loan interest rates and emphasized the necessity of affordable higher education, hounding Romney and Republicans on their support of the Ryan budget that threatens to slash funding for public education.
“Romney’s ‘severely conservative’ views are right in line with the views of North Carolina Republicans, who have pursued an extreme, slash-and-burn agenda since gaining control of the state legislature in the Tea Party wave of 2010,” Jamie Crain, press secretary for the North Carolina Democratic Party, wrote in an email May 16.
Romney, too, has made a point to directly address North Carolinians in his campaign. He spoke in Charlotte May 11 and promised to eradicate failing liberal policies that have inhibited economic success in the country and North Carolina.
“One of every two college graduates will wake up the day after graduation without a job,” Lockwood said about Obama’s lack of returns to degree earners. “If they were an Obama supporter before and don’t have a job and thought Obama would be able to provide them with one, they are going to be looking elsewhere.”
The main point of conflict in this battleground lies in whether NC voters associate the state’s stifling unemployment rate with the Democrats or Republicans, McCorkle noted.
“We’ve had a Democratic governor,” he said. “But are people going to get the idea that—with a Republican legislature for the past four years—our unemployment rate has been lagging behind the country’s? And do they think that, by cutting education, they are going to be creating more jobs?”