Can Obama win North Carolina?

Why We Worry / Raleigh-Durham Bureau

After favoring Republican presidential candidates for seven consecutive elections, North Carolina – in a surprise result – voted for President Obama in 2008. He won by less than 14,000 votes.

But Mitt Romney is currently leading the polls in this battleground state. Though Obama’s deficit has been low (generally within the margin of error), it has been consistent since May.

On May 8, in a 61-39% vote, N.C. passed Amendment 1, banning same-sex marriage. The very next day, for the first time, Obama publicly endorsed same-sex marriage. And his campaign expressed disappointment with the results in N.C. Since then, he has been losing state polls.

See below.

RCP

Amendment 1 aside,  N.C. was hit especially hard by the recession. Construction, a major economic sector in the state, was knocked down when the housing bubble burst. The state’s unemployment rate shot from 5% to 11.4%. Since then, unemployment has declined but has stayed above the national average and currently sits at a severe 9.6% (17.5% by the U6 “underemployment rate”). Unionization rates here are the lowest in the nation. Not surprisingly, incomes are low, too.

Considering this, it’s curious that N.C. is in contention for Obama. Nevertheless, polls in the last two and a half weeks have shown the president trending upward, with some actually putting him slightly ahead of Romney. Partly it may be due to the attention lavished on the state by the president himself, who vacations in Asheville, publicly praises the UNC basketball team and makes regular campaign stops here. The Democrats also recently held their nominating convention in Charlotte.

A stronger factor is probably the demographic change within N.C. While gloomy economic conditions have slowed the tide, migration to the state is still voluminous. Whether coming from Northern urban areas or from south of the national border, these migrants are more likely to support President Obama. Then there’s the African-American demographic, which composes 21.5% of the state population. This highly-religious group may have voted for Amendment 1, but it’s a certainty they will unify behind Obama.

Regardless, N.C. is unlikely to tip the election. In a Romney win, it would be essential. In an Obama win, it would be a feather in the cap. Longer term, the state’s status as a battleground for the second straight election and its morphing demographics suggest a period of transition. If the two parties each continue appealing to the same constituencies that they currently are, it’s only a question of time before N.C. links with the coastal states in the North East and Mid-Atlantic and becomes solid blue.