The Fight For North Carolina

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. speaks about the economy, Monday, June 9, 2008, at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C.
AP Photo/Jim R .Bounds
This story was written by Anthony Salvanto and Mark Gersh.

Previous stories in the States To Watch In '08 series: Minnesota | Colorado | Wisconsin | Ohio.



At first glance North Carolina might seem an unlikely battleground. This is, after all, where George W. Bush won a comfortable 12-point victory in 2004 despite the presence of a North Carolinian on the Democratic ticket; where twice as many voters said they were conservatives as said they were liberals; and where no Democratic Presidential candidate has won in thirty years.

But the past isn't necessarily prologue in this fast-growing state, with its influx of urban, higher-income professionals of the sort Barack Obama tries to attract, and a recent surge in the voter rolls in Democratic areas. It could end up being one of the more interesting states to watch in 2008, and here are the key things, and areas, to look at:

Part I: The growth

It's better to think in terms of numbers than percents in this case: George W. Bush won North Carolina by 436,000 votes - a fairly substantial sum. That means a vote swing of around 200,000 to the Democrats would make this a real battleground. So where could the Democrats find - or the Republicans lose - that many votes?

Obama would need to meld a strong African-American vote with upscale suburbanites. That would start with newer voters, and there are plenty of those. There are six million registered voters in North Carolina now, 500,000 more than in 2004 -- enough to make a difference.

The bulk of that change came in the run-up to the Democratic primary contest, since the summer of 2007, when the current Presidential race started heating up.

That advantaged the Democrats. The number of registered Democrats is 250,000 more than today than it was in summer 2007; the number of registered Republicans is only 60,000 higher, which makes for a pro-Democratic difference of 190,000 in that time. That gap, all by itself, is enough to make this state a battleground -- if they all turned out (as always, a big if) and they voted as their registration would indicate.

The geographical distribution of the registration change is as important as the numbers - and points us to important areas to watch. If the Democrats are going to gain votes anywhere, it will be first and foremost in the Raleigh-Durham area, with its relatively higher-income white professionals to whom Obama will try to appeal.


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Wake County, which contains Raleigh, is key. It went marginally for Bush in 2004 but it could swing Democratic now, and would probably need to for Obama to be competitive in North Carolina. It has been trending Democratic: Bush won by 19,000 in 2000 but by just 7,000 in 2004. Today there are more than 560,000 voters in the county, about 100,000 more than in 2004 and an increase of 60,000 from summer '07. The change in registration is plus-20,000 Democratic.

Durham County, nearby, is a place where Democrats typically do well; it is home to universities and has a relatively large percent of voters under the age of 40. Here again, Kerry did better than Gore, and Obama would need to build on that. Today Durham has 25,000 more voters than in the run-up to 2004, and the bulk of the registration increase has been Democratic.

Obama beat Hillary Clinton by 2 to 1 in Raleigh-Durham and did well with whites earning over $75,000 per year and with college graduates, who comprise a large share of the vote in the area. He'll need to succeed with that demographic again.

Also watch the high-growth county of Mecklenburg, around Charlotte to the south. Kerry won here by about 12,000 votes, reversing the Republican win in 2000. Registration totals there are 150,000 higher than four years ago and 60,000 from summer '07. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the county by 85,000, increasing their margin by 30,000 in just the last year.

If the state ends up being competitive, Obama must run up sizeable margins from these more urban, upscale counties if he is to have any chance of offsetting the gains in the more rural areas where McCain is sure to be strong, judging from the 2004 Bush victory.

The foundation of the Bush state-wide win was his overwhelming margin victory in the emerging exurban areas nestled in the counties around Charlotte and bordering South Carolina (watch especially the suburbs and exurbs of Union County and Gaston County).

In Forsyth County, home to Winston-Salem (and 200,000 voters) Bush won with 54% of the vote. Registration here hasn't expanded as fast as in other counties. Bush eviscerated Kerry in rural and small-town parts of the state, and also garnered a substantial margin in Eastern North Carolina, where most the state's conservative Democrats reside. If Obama does manage to turn out newer voters in Raleigh-Durham, McCain will need at least to hold on to the large Bush margins elsewhere. Some of the more Republican counties just aren't growing as fast.

One caution when reading the partisan registration numbers: the trends are telling, but the overall registration breakdowns can be misleading. Registration records for many older registered Democrats are actually holdovers from the days when they first registered in the Democratic "solid south," but many of these "registered Democrats" actually have been voting and thinking of themselves as Republicans now for a generation. Even as George W. Bush was winning the state handily in 2004 and more voters in exit polls said in they were more Republican (40%) than Democratic (39%), registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans in the official figures.

Part II: Race and the race

It would be a mistake to consider North Carolina a potential battleground solely because it has a large African American vote, though that support would be a major part of any Obama coalition.

In 2004 black voters made up 26% of the electorate, and Bush won 14% of their support. Much of this could be attributed to cultural, religious appeals; as it was in Ohio that percent was higher than it was nationally (11%).

If one assumes that McCain's could only win around 5% of the African-American vote against Obama, 100,000 votes could swing to the Democrats, just based on the size of 2004 electorate.

However, the Democratic primaries helped bring in new African American voters this year. Right now there are about 1.2 million black voters in the state (North Carolina, covered by the Voting Rights Act, keeps such data) an increase of around 200,000 from the summer of 2004 and 160,000 since summer 2007.

The major question is whether Obama could lose as many votes among white voters - and white Democrats - as he'd gain from higher turnout among blacks.

In the primary, Obama lost the white vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly twenty-five points. This could make North Carolina less competitive than its neighbor Virginia, where Obama won the white primary vote.

All that said, whites in the primary who said race was a factor in their vote comprised only 8% of the electorate, and Obama actually carried 36% of them. (By comparison, in West Virginia 20% of whites called race a factor and Obama got just 12% of them.) And Obama - like any national Democratic candidate - doesn't need to win the white vote in North Carolina; he could make this state competitive by getting somewhere over one-third of it if African American turnout is high.

Some places to watch to see how well Obama is doing in this regard:

Buncombe County, in the western part of the state, with the city of Ashville, a less affluent area: This is a large county that went marginally for Bush, but where Kerry closed the gap from 2000. Democrats rely on white working-class voters to keep things close here.

Cumberland County, near Fayetteville and the smaller Robeson County in the southern part of the state are potentially Democratic, mostly white and blue-collar strongholds.

These areas will be affected by the economy's troubles at least as much as anywhere else. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports the unemployment rate in North Carolina has surged to a preliminary estimate of 6.9% now, from 5.2% this spring. With heavy loses in manufacturing, these culturally-conservative blue-collar voters could be hit especially hard - setting up another set of battle lines between Obama and McCain.

Part III: Turnout and Early Voting

Finally, because so much hinges on turnout, it is essential to watch the early voting rates in North Carolina. The state provides a window in the weeks before the election for voters to cast ballots as "one-stop" absentees - essentially, getting and casting an absentee ballot all in one visit. It is so convenient that about one-third of the state's vote is cast this way, and that percent could even be higher this year.

Anything that makes voting easier potentially increases turnout, and both the Obama and McCain camps will be working to get their supporters out to vote early; it helps voters avoid long lines on Election Day. That can be especially important to the newest voters who might otherwise skip the hassle, or to those who haven't voted in the past because of their schedules.

The Obama campaign should have an effective operation in place from the primaries. Obama received 228,000 votes in the primary from "one-stop" or absentee voting, more than one-quarter his total support. (And the Clinton campaign got around one-fifth of its votes this way - so there are plenty of Democrats who've already gone through the process.) Watch the early voting rate come late October. If it's high, that's a leading indicator of a competitive race.

So the pivotal question is: Will Obama muster enough suburban backing, and enough African-American turnout, to trump North Carolina's traditional Republican base?
By Anthony Salvanto and Mark Gersh