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On Second Thought, Maybe N.C. Was a Mistake

Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
President Barack Obama spoke at the University of North Carolina last week. But the state might not be the best place for the Democratic National Convention, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Of course, all of these problems will seem insignificant if the president carries North Carolina in the fall.

For months, I’ve been including the Tar Heel State in my list of swing territory. I think I’ve been wrong to do so, no matter what current polling shows.

Unless the president wins re-election nationally by 7 or 8 points (or about what he did in 2008), his chances of carrying the state are not very good. And if he wins nationally by a large margin, he won’t need North Carolina.

Obama won North Carolina by three-tenths of a point four years ago — almost 7 points worse than his national margin of 7.2 points.

In each of the two previous presidential elections, 2004 and 2000, Republican George W. Bush carried the state by more than 12 points. In 2004, Bush’s showing in the Tar Heel State was 10 points ahead of his national margin, and in 2000, his showing in the state was more than 13 points better than his national showing.

Obama won the state by about 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast, while Bush’s margins were about 370,000 in 2000 and 435,000 in 2004.

Yes, North Carolina isn’t your typical Deep South state. Republicans performed better in the state than in other Southern states before the state realigned in the 1960s and early 1970s. It almost went for Dwight Eisenhower (R) in 1956, for example. But while much of the South went for Barry Goldwater (R) in 1964, North Carolina stuck with Lyndon Johnson (D).

Since the South’s realignment, Democrats have repeatedly held up North Carolina as an example of a state Democrats can win, citing the growth of the Research Triangle, the in-state migration of Northerners and the state’s more moderate style.

But no Democratic presidential nominee has won a majority of the total vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and the Democratic base in the state, at least for federal elections, appears to be about 44 percent, a few points less than the GOP base.

The state’s African-Americans and upscale, white liberals vote Democratic, as do many of the students at the state’s colleges and universities. Turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds was very strong in the state in 2008, and those voters went overwhelmingly for Obama.

But while there are more white Democratic voters in North Carolina (and Virginia) than in Mississippi or Alabama, there just aren’t enough to allow a Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state unless he or she is running comfortably ahead nationally.

Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) lost North Carolina in 2008 because voters wanted a change from George W. Bush, and Obama was a blank slate and offered voters an alternative to the Republican status quo. According to exit poll data on CNN’s website, McCain ran almost 10 points behind Bush’s 2004 showing among whites, a significant drop-off.

The president isn’t likely to run as well as he did four years ago nationally or in North Carolina, and any drop-off (in younger voter turnout or in support from whites) is likely to cost him the state’s 15 electoral votes given the closeness of the 2008 outcome. That’s undoubtedly why Obama held a “noncampaign” rally at the University of North Carolina last week.

Right now, North Carolina doesn’t look particularly hospitable to Obama’s re-election or to Democrats in general.

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