Battleground 2012: Can Obama Win North Carolina Again?
Charlotte, North Carolina
On July 18, 111 days before the November election, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx arrived at Obama headquarters for a special announcement. Flanked by a dozen campaign volunteers, Foxx explained how the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the first in the state’s history, would boost the president’s organizing efforts in this crucial battleground state.
“From the day North Carolina was selected,” Foxx said, “it was clear that the Obama campaign was committed to delivering the Tarheel State for President Obama once again.” Foxx described the convention as a “massive organizing opportunity to recruit, to train and to engage more North Carolina volunteers than ever before.” To that end, he announced, volunteers who gave nine hours of their time in three shifts would be guaranteed a seat at Bank of America Stadium when Obama speaks on September 6.
At 41, Foxx is the youngest mayor in Charlotte’s history and only its second African-American mayor (the first, Harvey Gantt, lost two bitter Senate contests to Jesse Helms in the 1990s). Foxx has become Obama’s most visible surrogate in the state and an evangelist for the type of grassroots organizing that propelled Obama to victory four years ago. “In my previous campaigns for city council, we didn’t focus as much on phone banking and door knocking and grassroots politics,” Foxx told me. “We took a lot of the mechanics from the Obama 2008 campaign and applied them to my 2009 mayoral race and my 2011 re-election race.”
In 2011, Foxx was returned to office with 70 percent of the vote, and Democrats swept all four city council races, holding a nine-to-two majority for the first time in Charlotte’s history. The races were viewed by the Obama campaign as a test run for 2012. Foxx’s campaign, boosted by Obama volunteers from 2008, made ten times as many phone calls to voters as his opponent and knocked on 25,000 doors. “This was a really good wake-up call for the Republican Party,” GOP consultant Jessica Wood would tell the Charlotte Observer. “We were clearly just out-organized.”
North Carolina was the second-closest state in 2008—Obama won it by 14,177 votes—and had the largest spike in voter turnout compared with 2004, due largely to a surge in African-American and young voters. Today, the Obama campaign wants to prove that its 2008 squeaker was no fluke by forcing the Romney campaign to vigorously defend the state in a way that John McCain did not.
Political analysts Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress have described this election as pitting “demographics versus economics.” The country’s changing demographics favor Obama, but the sluggish economy benefits Romney. Nowhere is this pattern as stark as in North Carolina. Demographically, state’s growing coalition of young voters, minorities, white-collar professionals, and progressive transplants from the Midwest and Northeast favor Obama. People of color accounted for 61 percent of the state’s 1.5 million new residents over the past decade. Since 2008, the black and Hispanic share of eligible voters in North Carolina has grown by 2.5 percent, while the percentage of the white vote has decreased by a similar margin. North Carolina has the largest population of African-Americans of any swing state, and it’s also the battleground state where Obama is least reliant on white voters. Of the 263,000 people who moved to North Carolina in 2010, 65 percent came from states that supported Obama in 2008. In other words, Obama’s local coalition has grown since 2008, while the Republicans’ has shrunk.
Economically, however, North Carolina has the country’s fourth-highest unemployment rate, which has stayed above 9 percent for forty-one months. In June, the unemployment rate increased in eighty-four of the state’s 100 counties. With Obama winning 54 percent of voters who said they were “very worried” about the economy in 2008, it’s not hard to imagine this figure reversed in Romney’s favor in 2012.
All of which suggests that the vote in North Carolina could be as close as it was the last time around. Twenty-one of the twenty-two polls conducted by the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling have shown the presidential race within three points. In June, Vice President Joe Biden told donors that Romney and his allies would spend $800 million “carpet-bombing” the president with negative TV ads. “There’s only one way to counter that,” Biden said. “That’s to put together the single most consequential ground game in the history of American politics. We did it last time. It’s got to be better this time.”
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At the beginning of 2008, it didn’t even look like there’d be much of a presidential campaign in North Carolina. One poll that January found McCain leading Obama by fourteen points. “North Carolina was put in play not on its own volition, but because the Obama people came in and put it in play,” says Ferrel Guillory, an expert on state politics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. When the late Democratic primary in May 2008 unexpectedly clinched the nomination for Obama, volunteer groups spontaneously sprouted all over the state. Obama visited North Carolina so many times—twenty stops total—that Governor Mike Easley joked, “‘Barack’ is Hawaiian for ‘Bubba.’” A week before the election, the Obama campaign had fifty offices in the state and 23,000 volunteers, who knocked on 945,000 doors and made 3 million phone calls. Of the 629,000 new voters registered from January to November, Democrats outnumbered Republicans five to one. As a result, Democrats won close races for governor, the US Senate and the House of Representatives.
An avalanche of misfortune followed. Democrats lost control of the state legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction, targeted by an unprecedented influx of conservative Super PAC cash and replaced by a slew of Tea Party Republicans who promptly gerrymandered the legislative lines to preserve their fragile majority. Governor Easley pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations. His successor, Bev Perdue, became the most unpopular governor in the country, a victim of the state’s economic woes and her own ethical mishaps, and announced that she would not seek re-election. Native son John Edwards endured a lengthy and lurid trial in Greensboro. The state Democratic Party was rocked by accusations that its executive director had sexually harassed a young staffer. Today there are 118,000 fewer registered North Carolina Democrats than there were in 2008, compared with only 21,000 fewer Republicans (the number of unaffiliated voters has grown by 184,000).
Given this “string of blows,” says Chris Kromm, executive director of the Durham-based Institute for Southern Studies, “the fact that the presidential race is still within the margin of error is a cause for some optimism.” North Carolina used to vote reliably Democratic on the local level but Republican for president. Now that dynamic has been reversed. Democrats hope that in 2012, the Obama campaign will be the tide that lifts all boats.
State Representative Tricia Cotham told me that July is the “no-politics month” in North Carolina, but I found a hub of activity at Obama headquarters the night of Foxx’s visit. The downtown office, filled with campaign memorabilia and pictures of Democratic icons like FDR and Truman, was teeming with staff and volunteers on the phone, recruiting past Obama supporters. A huge calendar listed notable voter registration opportunities: a local soul food festival, American Idol auditions, the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.
In 2008, the Obama campaign had 625 volunteer teams of four to six people, each overseen by a staffer, covering every one of the state’s 2,762 precincts. This year the goal is to have 20,000 volunteer field offices nationwide, run from the comfort of an iPhone. Yet a central unanswered question of this election is whether the Obama campaign can mobilize voters as it did in 2008, which saw the largest voter turnout since 1968. Forty-five million Americans who voted in 2008 didn’t vote in 2010—the majority of them young, black, Hispanic or progressive voters. Obama’s numbers have steadied since then and the economy has slowly improved, but recent surveys still show that young voters and Democrats overall are less excited about voting now than they were in 2008. “A lot of Obama’s fate will come down to how well he can remobilize his coalition from 2008,” Teixeira says.
The campaign is betting it can lure remaining holdouts back into the fold, either by touting Obama’s accomplishments or by emphasizing the dangers of GOP domination in Washington or Raleigh. (The Republican-controlled state legislature, which seems to be taking its cues from House Republicans, has an approval rating of 22 percent.) Fear can be as good a motivator as hope. This time around, Obama’s campaign feels less like a movement and more like, well, a campaign.
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From Charlotte I drove up I-77 to meet a group of Obama volunteers in Huntersville, a Republican-leaning suburb fifteen miles north of the city. Guillory attributes Obama’s 2008 win in part to the increasing “metropolitanization” of the state; 70 percent of North Carolina’s growth over the past decade has been concentrated in the “urban crescent” stretching from Raleigh to Charlotte. (Obama captured two-thirds of the vote in urban areas.) A lot of Obama voters in places like Huntersville came out of the woodwork in 2008.
I reached a middle-class subdivision, where a silver VW Bug sat in the driveway with a “99 percent” sticker above an Obama 2012 sticker. Hosting the event was Janelle Taylor, a 33-year-old Obama “super-volunteer” who works in human resources for a manufacturing company. A dozen people were in her living room, calling past Obama supporters. It was the first event Taylor had hosted in 2012. “There are a lot of new faces,” she said. “Some familiar faces too, but most people here tonight are fairly new to me.” Explaining why she’s supporting Obama again, she echoed the president’s own stump speech. “We’ve gone through some tough times as a nation,” she told me. “The economy’s been rough. But I feel like Obama pulled us out of a ditch and we’re headed in the right direction. The big thing for me is to keep making progress.”
Another super-volunteer in attendance was Lawrence Raymer, a gregarious former Air Force weapons control officer and ninth-generation North Carolinian. Raymer became active in politics because of his opposition to the war in Iraq and said he’d made 12,000 calls for Democratic candidates in 2008. His typical week: Monday for Obama, Tuesday for Congressional candidate Harry Taylor, Wednesday for now-Senator Kay Hagan, and so on. “If you can get 10 percent to volunteer, you’re doing a good job,” Raymer said. If the 2008 campaign was a sprint from start to finish, 2012 feels more like a marathon, with the Obama campaign pacing itself to reach the finish line.
Raymer showed me the list of names on his call sheet. Most were in their twenties and thirties. “The old folks are Jessecrats,” he said, referring to the conservative white Democrats who supported Jesse Helms. “The rest are Yankees. The last time there were so many Yankees here, they had on blue uniforms.” Raymer laughed uproariously at his Civil War joke. Obama is counting on those “Yankees”: native North Carolinians supported McCain in 2008, while Obama won among transplants. Obama also did far better among non-native Democrats, particularly white ones. The North Carolina of today bears little resemblance to the state that sent Helms to the Senate for thirty years.
“The story is North Carolina really becoming a global state in terms of its population demography,” says Jim Johnson, a demographic expert at UNC–Chapel Hill, citing an influx that ranges from immigrants to “snowbirds from the Northeast” to “a substantial reverse migration of African-Americans back into the state.” Even as the urban centers boomed, thirty-five rural counties saw their death rate exceed the birth rate in 2009. “It’s a tale of two states,” Johnson says. The Jessecrats are literally dying off.
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In 2008, Obama upended many of the dictums of presidential campaigns, particularly the notion that they should spend as much money as possible on television advertising. “In a lot of campaigns, the media gets funded first; then, if you have extra money that comes in, you bolster the field,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said after the election. “We kind of did it in reverse.” The Obama campaign spent “under 50 percent” of its budget on the media, Plouffe said, compared with the normal rate of 70 to 75 percent (according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the campaign spent 56 percent of its money on the media and a third on TV). But while Obama outspent McCain by nearly two to one on TV ads in the two months before the election, the campaign also opened 300 more field offices than McCain did. University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket found that by investing in offices in places where the 2004 Kerry campaign hadn’t, the Obama campaign generated an additional one to three points for their candidate—enough to turn Florida, Indiana and North Carolina blue in 2008.
Obama won’t be able to outspend Romney and his allied Super PACs this time around, which makes the ground game that much more important. The Obama campaign has already been outspent two to one on the airwaves in North Carolina by Romney and conservative groups like Crossroads GPS—a gulf that will likely only grow wider heading into November. Romney has dropped more money on TV ads in Charlotte than in any other swing-state media market except for Tampa, Florida.
But “in an era when campaigns sink more and more money into television advertisements with less and less to show for it,” Masket wrote after 2008, “investing more in shoe leather may be a wise decision.” Political scientist Donald Green, co-author of Get Out the Vote, found that door-to-door canvassing is the most efficient way to mobilize voters, generating “7 to 9 additional votes for every 100 people you contact.” The impact of TV ads, both in convincing people to vote for a particular candidate and in getting them to the polls, is far more uncertain. “Even when the persuasive effect of ads on candidate preference is large, 50 percent of the effect dissipates within the first few days, and 80 percent is gone by the end of the second week,” says UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck of findings after the 2000 election.
Of particular salience for Obama is North Carolina’s early-voting period, which lasts seventeen days and includes same-day voter registration. “Republicans tend to be more dependable voters than Democrats,” says Marc Farinella, Obama’s 2008 state director. “So having two to three weeks to turn out sporadic Democratic voters is an enormous advantage.” In 2008, Obama beat McCain by 305,000 votes among those who voted early.
During the GOP primary, Romney and his Super PACs chose to bombard his rivals over the airwaves instead of out-organizing them on the ground. Now he’s playing a furious game of catch-up, opening twenty “victory offices” in North Carolina so far, half as many as Obama. Local Republicans point out that Romney’s campaign is ahead of where McCain’s was in 2008. “No one is going to be caught by surprise this time,” says former state GOP chair Tom Fetzer. “Republicans in North Carolina are much more energized about voting in 2012 than they were in 2008.” Fetzer says that internal polling shows unaffiliated, independent and suburban voters—crucial swing blocs—breaking Romney’s way.
After returning from Huntersville, I drove to High Point (“Furniture Capital of the World”), stopping for a famed chopped pork sandwich in Lexington (“Barbecue Capital of North Carolina”), then met up with Brandon Koebbe, a 30-year-old organizer with Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Founded in 2003 and boasting 3 million members, Working America signs up “working-class moderates” who don’t have a union job but respond favorably to a populist economic message. Organizers do this the old-fashioned way: knocking on door after door. I tagged along as Brandon canvassed a working-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood of small ranch houses in High Point. The sluggish economy was all too evident: a number of residents were unemployed or on disability pay. They were reluctant to donate any money—most said they had nothing to spare.
We talked to housewives, truck drivers, teachers, cashiers, construction workers and nurses. Jobs and healthcare were the main concerns. Brandon told them about the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would end tax incentives for companies that ship jobs overseas. “We’re out here today to keep good jobs in North Carolina, not send them abroad,” he said during his pitch. The issue of outsourcing could play a decisive role in the campaign. “North Carolinians are folks who have read over and over and over again about their textile jobs and other manufacturing jobs going overseas,” Farinella says. “So it is my expectation that this issue of Romney’s role in Bain Capital—and the notion that Bain shipped jobs overseas—is likely to resonate in North Carolina to a greater extent than it even resonates nationally.”
After knocking on roughly forty doors in the sweltering heat, Brandon recruited fifteen new members. (Working America signs up two out of every three people it talks to; about half will donate or take some action.) The group plans to reach 20,000 before Labor Day; in the fall, it will reach out and urge them to support President Obama. In a state decided by 14,177 votes in 2008, you never know how many will make the difference.
As Lawrence Raymer puts it, “I think the state is still winnable for Obama, but it’s going to be a hell of a fight.”