Could traditionally red North Carolina be a swing state this election year? Democrats hope so.
Democratic campaign strategy is turning North Carolina into a battleground for the first time in more than 30 years. Instead of writing it off as a shoe-in Republican victory,Democratic Barack Obama's campaign is making a concerted effort to win the state – pouring more than $2 million into television ads there,according to Marc Farinella,state campaign director.
“It's not such a big stretch to see Barack Obama win North Carolina,” Farinella said in a press conference call Wednesday. “It is clearly a competitive state this year,and we can win here.”
The last Democratic candidate to win North Carolina was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Recent polls,however,have revealed consistent single-digit margins between Obama and Republican John McCain. McCain leads by four points,according to a Survey USA poll released Tuesday,but that's barely outside the poll's 3.9 percentage point margin of error.
“If Obama wins,it's a huge upset,” said Mike Cobb,associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University. “I don't think they're counting on it. I don't think they're expecting it. I think what in part is happening is that they are forcing McCain to spend time and resources in states where he otherwise wasn't expecting to do so.”
Obama operates 16 campaign offices in North Carolina,Farinella said,compared with three for McCain,according to his campaign Web site. North Carolina Republican Party spokesman Brent Woodcox said nine more will open around the state this week and that the party is not taking the state for granted.
Black voter turnout will be an important factor.
The 2006 Census reported a state black population of 21.7 percent,and Obama should pull 90 to 95 percent of that group's votes,said Hunter Bacot,associate professor of political science at Elon University in North Carolina.
Another possible upset looms at the Senate level,where Democratic challenger Kay Hagan is fighting Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole for her Senate seat. While Andrew Taylor,associate professor of political science at N.C. State,said that Dole is still the clear favorite,Hagan is making a better-than-expected run.
A Survey USA poll released Tuesday showed Dole slightly ahead of Hagan,46 to 41,seven points fewer than her lead in the July poll. The poll's margin of error is 3.9 percentage points.
Hagan may be picking up on an anti-Republican sentiment sweeping the country.
“There's a growing partisan self-identification balance that's helping Democrats,” Cobb said,noting that the trend is most clearly visible among people 28 and under. “Fewer people are calling themselves Republicans,even in the South.”
A “post-Bush effect” has created a negative association with the word “Republican,” Cobb said.
“There's no doubting that this is a tough environment for Republicans,” Woodcox said. “Just by virtue of having an ‘R' next to your name,you're going to have to run a very serious campaign to win.”
Dole's campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley said Dole has supported the Republican agenda only when it directly benefited North Carolinians and has criticized the administration's mistakes in Iraq and its attempted Medicaid cuts.
At the House level,all 13 North Carolina representatives are up for re-election,and Cobb said that,for the most part,the state's seven incumbent Democrats and six incumbent Republicans will keep their seats.
One exception could lie in the 8th District,where Democratic challenger Larry Kissell could swipe a seat from Republican incumbent Robin Hayes.
Bacot pointed out that Kissell lost by just 329 votes in 2006.
A Public Policy poll released July 8 showed Hayes leading Kissell 43 to 36 percent,which means Hayes is slightly ahead,based on the poll's 4.2 percentage point margin of error.
Hayes' approval stood at only 38 percent,however,a possible plus for Kissell.
Cobb said Democratic candidates like Kissell and Hagan could benefit from Obama's campaign.
“You typically have coattails where,as a new president takes over,members of his party tend to be advantaged at the congressional level and then trickling down to state races as well,” Cobb said.
This effect is not about conversion,Cobb said,but turnout. If voters head to the polls to vote for one party's presidential candidate,they may vote down the ticket for that party's state candidates as well.
Changing state demographics could also help Democrats.
In the past 10 to 15 years,Bacot said,North Carolina has seen an influx of out-of-state immigrants with more moderate political views than the traditionally conservative native population. Cobb noted growing urban populations in areas such as Raleigh and Charlotte.
“As the state becomes less southern,it makes it much more likely that if there is a crack in the unified South,it will come from a state like North Carolina,” Cobb said.