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

Stuart Rothenberg May 1, 2012 · 10:16 AM EDT

If national Democratic strategists chose Charlotte, N.C., for the party’s national convention because they liked the facilities, the hotel accommodations or the weather in early September, then I guess I can’t yet quibble with the choice.

But if David Axelrod and the president’s other political advisers picked the Tar Heel State to make some broader political point, then they goofed.

Simply put: North Carolina looks like a mess for Democrats.

The state’s Democratic governor, Beverly Perdue, is so unpopular — her job approval has been fluctuating from 30 percent to 40 percent for months — that she wisely decided not to seek re-election this year. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based Democratic polling firm, showed only 60 percent of Democrats approve of the job the governor is doing.

A handful of Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination, including former Rep. Bob Etheridge and the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, Walter Dalton, but virtually everyone expects former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R), who lost to Perdue narrowly four years ago, to win the state’s top office in November.

The last Republican to win the governorship was Jim Martin, in 1988, and only two Republicans, Martin and Jim Holshouser, have been elected governor since Reconstruction.

Democrats will lose three or four Congressional seats in November, victims of Republican redistricting made possible by the national GOP wave of 2010, which gave both chambers of the state Legislature to Republicans. (In an ironic twist, the governor of North Carolina had no role in the redistricting process.)

But it gets worse.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina’s preliminary unemployment rate for March stood at 9.7 percent, lower than only three states (California, Rhode Island and Nevada) and the District of Columbia. Apparently, the Obama administration’s jobs recovery has not shifted into high gear in the Tar Heel State.

Of course, if the state’s economy is a mess, it’s still in better shape than the North Carolina Democratic Party.

Two weeks ago, the state party’s executive director, Jay Parmley, resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment. North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman David Parker, who accepted Parmley’s resignation but seemed to defend him, has also come under fire. Some Democratic activists are now demanding his resignation.

Finally, the president will accept his party’s nomination — and presumably beat up on corporate America and the wealthy — at Bank of America Stadium (after a couple of days at Time Warner Cable Arena). Expect the press to point out the irony, which could put President Barack Obama’s campaign on the defensive more than a few times.

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.