Four years ago, all eyes were on North Carolina as polls and journalists almost unanimously agreed that voters in the Tar Heel state race were down to a fifty-fifty split between then-freshman Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. Now, not everyone agrees that North Carolina is the battleground it once was.
Obama won North Carolina in 2008—a feat not accomplished by a Democrat for 32 years prior—by a margin of 0.3 percent, a tenuous hold over the historically conservative state. The four years since have given time for the state political climate to evolve or devolve, depending on who you ask. In 2010, North Carolinians elected a very Republican state legislature, and this May, voters approved a Republican-backed anti-same-sex marriage amendment that shone the media spotlight on what seemed to be an increasingly conservative North Carolina.
Those indicators suggested that the president would be facing an uphill battle in his re-election pursuit, and poll data over the course of the 2012 campaign season have confirmed that notion. The Real Clear Politics average of polls, a tabulation that aggregates data from several renowned polling firms, shows that since Mitt Romney clinched the Republican presidential nomination, he has only lost the lead in North Carolina for an eight-day stint after a video surfaced in which he said 47 percent of Americans “believe that they are victims” and “believe that they are entitled.”
On the eve of the elections, Romney maintained a full 3 percent lead in North Carolina, according to the RCP average. The aggregation includes a range of data from a Rasmussen poll that put Romney six points ahead of his opponent to an Elon University poll that put the two candidates in a dead tie. Romney’s 3 percent lead in North Carolina is stronger than any lead either candidate had in contested states Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire and Virginia as of Nov. 5. These data have helped instill confidence in the Romney camp’s security over the North Carolina.
Another statewide indicator is support for Gov. Bev Perdue. Since her election in 2008, her approval ratings have decreased steadily, and she decided not to run for another term. Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory is now polling 14.3 points ahead of Democrat Walter Dalton, according to the RCP average.
“The momentum is on our side, and North Carolina will turn red this November,” said Rachel Adams, communications director for Romney’s North Carolina Victory campaign.
But the Obama campaign has not even considered giving up the fight for North Carolina, said Cameron French, press secretary for the North Carolina branch of the Obama For America campaign. In fact, grassroots supporters are now working as hard as they ever have to keep Obama’s most narrowly won state blue, he added. OFA’s presence in North Carolina has not left since the president’s election in 2008, he noted, and more than 400 volunteer “neighborhood teams” and 54 offices have been working toward Obama’s re-election in recent months. Democratic A-listers first lady Michelle Obama, second lady Jill Biden and former President Bill Clinton have visited the state in the last four days leading up to Election Day. While Clinton and the first lady took to Raleigh and Charlotte—both Democratic mainstays—Biden rallied support in more conservative western regions of the state.
“This is not a last ditch effort. It’s a continuation of the work we’ve been doing,” French said, adding that he does not consider 3 percent a large enough gap in the polls to predict a Romney victory. “Once we started the early vote, every day has been Election Day.”
Early voting ran from Oct. 18 to Nov. 3 in North Carolina, and results suggest that all is not lost for Obama in the state, he added.
“Democrats overwhelmingly came out more to vote in terms of turnout compared to what Republicans were able to do,” French said.
During the North Carolina early voting period, approximately 1.3 million registered Democrats, 861,128 registered Republicans and 565,836 registered unaffiliated voters cast ballots, according to data from Carolina Transparency, a website that tracks election data for the state.
However, early voting results do not have a history of accurately predicting elections. In 2008, Democratic early voters greatly overwhelmed GOP early voters in North Carolina, much like they have done in 2012, but Obama took the state by just more than 14,000 votes.
Republicans expect that they will have a much higher voter turnout on Election Day, Adams noted, and the proportion by which Democrats led in 2012 early voting is less extreme than it was in 2008.
“Republicans have cut into the Democrats’ 2008 early vote margin in North Carolina by more than triple Obama’s 14,000-vote margin of victory in the state.... The president’s lead in early votes isn’t likely to hold with Gov. Romney leading those likely to vote on Election Day by a 60 to 33 percent margin,” she said. “There is a clear choice on Election Day, and North Carolina voters will choose Mitt Romney.”
On Oct. 18, The Raleigh News and Observer reported that many Romney staffers, including Robert Reid, the chief Romney spokesman in North Carolina, had been relocated to other more competitive states. Despite the move, 24 offices have remained open throughout the state and volunteers have remained engaged, said Michael Levoff, a Romney spokesman.
Republicans may be too secure in their lead, French said. If Romney fails to win North Carolina, he will have to recoup the loss in electoral votes by picking up states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Nevada or Pennsylvania, which all have been polling small but consistent leads for Obama.
French argued that North Carolina’s changing demographics may play in Obama’s favor come Election Day.
According to a Nov. 2 OFA memo that tabulated 2008 and 2010 U.S. Census Bureau datasets, the rate at which the white citizen voting age population of the state is increasing is only one fourth of the rate at which the equivalent black population is increasing and only one eighteenth of the rate at which the Latino population is increasing. The memo also said that, through the first 14 days of early voting, voters between the ages of 18 and 24 had already cast over 9,000 more votes in 2012 than they did in 2008 early voting. Black, Latino, and youth voters have consistently been polled to favor Obama this election cycle.
Both candidates poured plenty of funding into the state, but Romney and his surrogates have the advantage on ad spending, according to a National Journal report. Obama for America spent $24.1 million, the Romney campaign spent $17.1 million and Romney-surrogate political action committees spent $22.9 million in North Carolina.
Today, voters will decide whether North Carolina will be as close a race as it was in 2008. Both campaigns said they have committed massive resources and efforts into the state, and will focus on motivating as many voters as possible to cast their ballots.