Know Your Battleground States 3/9: North Carolina

North Carolina’s most important moment in world history was back in 1903 when the Wright Brothers achieved the first ever controlled, powered, flight by a heavier-than-air vehicle out on the strange barrier reef of islands known as the Outer Banks. The Tarheel State’s fascination with technology and transport continues to this day, in the world class universities of the Research Triangle and the NASCAR race tracks at Charlotte and Rockingham.

The Wright Brothers Memorial on the Outer Banks

North Carolina is an incredibly complex state. In the remoter islands of the Outer Banks, isolated until causeways were built in the 20th Century, natives still speak a dialect closer to the Elizabethan English of their ancestors than modern Coastal Southern spoken in nearby mainland towns. The southeastern part of the coastal plain is the state’s industrial heartland, and until recently one of the USA’s largest centres of textile manufacturing, now suffering as production has moved overseas. This was once the state’s Democratic stronghold, although it has shifted to the GOP in step with, albeit less dramatically than, similar blue collar and predominantly White areas across the South. The rest of the coastal plain is dominated the Black Belt as it curves its way from Louisiana to Virginia, the centre of plantation agriculture during slavery, and still desperately poor and heavily African American.

Downtown Charlotte's skyline

Moving inland, the economic situation picks up along with the rolling Piedmont hills, especially around Raleigh, Durham and Winston-Salem – the triad of university cities from which the Research Triangle gets its name. The Piedmont is also home to the state’s largest city, Charlotte, a booming financial services centre which hosts NASCAR’s national headquarters. The I-85 freeway that connects these cities gives its name to a corridor synonymous with rapid economic and population growth, a heavy population of transplanted Yankees, and a rapidly growing Hispanic population few of whom yet appear on the state’s voter rolls.

Heading further west, the Piedmont starts to give way to the true mountain peaks of the Appalachians, in the region known as the “Land of the Sky”, a checkerboard of traditional Southern industrial towns and upscale tourism and retirement communities. Like West Virginia and the bordering counties of Tennessee, this area was largely home to poor and non-slaveholding White farmers before the Civil War, a fact still reflected in the region’s small Black population and a loyalty to the GOP that goes back much further than Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

The Blue Ridge Mountains

North Carolina is a patchwork of communities, rich and poor, black and white, industrial and services-dominated, sprawling metropolitan areas and little towns. From that, Obama was able to construct a 2008 winning coalition – albeit by only a wafer-thin margin – of African Americans, college-educated Whites, and what remained of unionised working-class Whites, especially in the industrial south east. 50% of Obama’s 2008 votes came from Black voters, and just 27% from Whites without a college degree. Of the states he won, only Virginia and Colorado had fewer Obama supporters from the White working-class.

This is why North Carolina remains (arguably) competitive, while the other knife-edge 2008 states – Indiana, Missouri and Montana – are all safely in the Republican column this year. In North Carolina, which to a fair extent shares the racialised voting patterns of most of the South, low-income Whites were never an enormous part of his electorate and those that were tended to be in unionised households.

Asheville's Art Deco town hall

Obama did badly in the traditionally Republican west of the state, outside of the region’s largest city, self-confessedly liberal Asheville, and he underperformed other recent Democratic candidates in the industrial southeast. However, he polled heavily along the booming I-85 corridor, home to two-thirds of the state’s voters. Obama piled up a 350,000 vote margin in the five most heavily urbanised counties of the corridor, and padded it further with a record turnout and almost universal support in the Black Belt counties, which was just enough stay clear of the margins McCain ran up in the rest of the state.

It doesn’t look like Obama will be able to repeat his win of 2008 here – the first by a Democrat Presidential candidate in the Tarheel State since Jimmy Carter in 1976. At this stage four years ago, had Obama 2.6% ahead in its polling average. Today it has him 3.8% behind. While Obama’s early voting machine, another key part of his 2008 win, seems to be getting even more people out this year, Romney has taken early voting here seriously in a way that McCain never did or could, and has closed the gap notably.

Peace College main building, Raleigh

That doesn’t mean that the $23 million Obama spent on television advertising alone – even leaving aside the cost of his field operation – was wasted. As I noted back in August, Obama never needed to win North Carolina, his strategy was probably to keep the race close and force Romney to spend considerable cash. Others made the same observation. If that was the strategy, it has arguably paid off – Romney has spent $16.5M on advertising in a state that he will only lose in another Obama landslide, and GOP PACs dumped in a further $27M. Nor has Obama gone dark here – he spent over a million dollars on Tarheel State advertising even last week; not an enormous investment for a state this size, but not chicken feed either.

Its hard to believe Team Obama is still pumping a million bucks a week into a decoy operation. Perhaps David Axelrod has prepared the polling day get-out-the-vote machine of ages, but that’s pretty much what Obama already had here in 2008. It seems difficult to believe that North Carolina’s 15 Electoral Votes are going anywhere but into Mitt Romney’s column. Neighbouring Virginia, another Southern state undergoing rapid Yankee immigration, seems a much more likely candidate for election night drama.

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