Yes We Can’t

The numbers say Barack Obama can't win North Carolina -- probably. But if he does manage to be the first Democratic candidate for president to carry N.C. since Jimmy Carter, well, you can call him President Obama


It was a hot July morning, a month after the Democratic primaries ended. Barack Obama hadn't set foot in North Carolina since his blowout win over Hillary Clinton here in May. At James Martin Middle School in northeast Charlotte, the crowd showed up hours before the Illinois senator was scheduled to speak about the economy. His visit was part of a swing through states Democrats haven't won in presidential elections in years, one that took Obama to a Fourth of July parade in Montana, a farm in North Dakota, a town hall in Georgia. But as it turned out, the Tar Heel State would have to wait. A mechanical glitch with his chartered airplane sent Obama to a hasty landing in St. Louis, and his trip to Charlotte turned into an eight-minute call-in by speakerphone.

Trickle-down Effect

Obama's N.C. efforts may hurt Elizabeth Dole's bid to retain her Senate seat — or it could be the other way around

Barack Obama and John McCain's political future may not be determined by North Carolina this fall, but Elizabeth Dole's will.

The senior senator's reelection bid could become more complicated than she'd like if Obama really does bring thousands of new voters to the polls this November—all fired up to put Democrats in office up and down the ballot. Her challenger, state Sen. Kay Hagan, is already trying to lump in Dole with unpopular Republicans in North Carolinians' minds (she calls the Bush administration "the Bush/Dole team"), hoping a disgruntled national political climate will help her. Through the summer, Dole held onto a lead in polls by playing up her work on behalf of the state, erasing most gains Hagan had made from getting her TV ads out first.

The longer the presidential race stays close in North Carolina, though, the harder it may be for Dole to sleep easy at night. The Obama-McCain campaign "can't help but impact" the Senate campaign, says Jennifer Duffy, who's tracking the Dole-Hagan fight (and other Senate contests) for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. "It's at the top of the ticket," she says. Obama's call for "change we can believe in" hits the same impulse as Hagan's joke about sending Dole back to Kansas (where her husband, former senator Bob Dole, is from).

Around the country, Democrats have a pretty healthy lead over Republicans in poll questions asking voters whether they'd prefer one party over another in Congress; that's a crude measure of the political atmosphere, but it's not a good sign for any GOP incumbent. Dole is considered likely to hold on to her seat—Duffy says it "leans Republican," which means it's not quite safe but is also not quite a toss-up. "Given the environment, there's a chance," says Duffy, for Hagan to convince voters to give her a shot.

Obama's massive voter registration drive in North Carolina could mean a bump for Hagan, too. But some summer polls showed Dole winning as much as a quarter of the state's black vote, which could limit the impact of that bump—Obama's campaign is focusing heavily on finding eligible black voters who haven't registered to vote yet. That effort won't be the only way Democrats from outside the state try to help Hagan, though. The party's national Senate campaign committee is setting up its own field organization in the state, which could help Hagan identify voters who plan to support McCain but might also be willing to throw Dole out of office. The party's national leaders are almost as excited about North Carolina as Obama's campaign is. "Kay Hagan's on fire," Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who runs the campaign committee, told the (Raleigh) News & Observer in July.

But Republicans think their own get-out-the-vote operation, which includes plenty of work around Pat McCrory's run for Raleigh, will be good enough to overcome the new Democratic strength on the ground. "Dole's name and reputation in the state carry a lot of weight, and that is a mountain Hagan will have a tough time climbing," says Rebecca Fisher, a spokeswoman for the national Republican Senate campaign effort. Paul Shumaker, the top political consultant for Sen. Richard Burr, says Dole's campaign will draw hard-core conservatives, including those who might not have been motivated to vote for McCain, out to the polls. Inside the Beltway, Republicans think Obama's voter-registration drive will fizzle in the end.

Whether Dole keeps her seat or not could come down to whether those Republicans are right, or just hopeful. —Mike Madden

The way Obama and his aides talk about the state, though, it was surprising he didn't walk to the school to avoid canceling the campaign stop. Listening to some Democrats, you'd get the feeling North Carolina is shaping up to be the Ohio of 2008. Already, North Carolina has seen some of Obama's first TV ads of the general election. He hired a veteran of statewide campaigns to manage his North Carolina offices, launched a major voter registration drive, and pretty much declared open season on the state, effectively announcing that he intended to be the first member of his party since Jimmy Carter to win it in the fall.

That's supposed to be part of Obama's magic, of course. He's said all along that he intends to change the political map, competing in states Republicans have taken for granted for decades, bringing a taste of full-scale presidential campaigning to places that just might turn out to be more receptive to a Democrat than people figured. Obama's first goal is to hold the states John Kerry won four years ago. But after that, he's playing offense. "Win the Kerry states, win Iowa, we're at 259 [electoral votes]," out of the 270 needed to win the election, campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters in Washington in late June. "Win North Carolina, it's game, set, match."

But things are rarely that simple in politics, and this November may not be any different. Obama might well give John McCain a run for his money in this state; mid-summer polls, which aren't usually worth much except as a possible preview of where the race is headed, had McCain clinging to a narrow lead. Still, the state may never become the true battleground the Obama campaign wants it to be — and even if it does, he might be on his way to the White House no matter what.

After all, Gov. Mike Easley might disagree, but North Carolina is still a pretty Republican state. An Obama win would probably be the final clue that a landslide win is coming his way more than a crucial victory in a battleground state. If North Carolina goes blue, a lot of purple states are probably going to tip first. "If Obama can win North Carolina, he's almost undoubtedly the next president of the United States," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "It just means that he can win Colorado, he can win Virginia, he can win Ohio. There's a wave."

Like so much about politics this year, it's demographics that makes strategists look at North Carolina the way hungry voters might eye a plate of barbecue. The state is nearly 22 percent African-American, and black voters are 20.7 percent of registered voters. Obama's campaign is counting on record turnout to help make him the first black president. At the same time, an influx of new residents into the Charlotte area and the Research Triangle could provide fertile territory for Obama's efforts. (The percentage of North Carolinians born in the state dropped from 67 percent to 64 percent just between 2004 and 2006, according to census data.) North Carolina is no longer the same place that kept sending Jesse Helms back to the Senate; if it were, the first black nominee for a major party wouldn't even be dreaming of competing in the state. So Obama's aides are focusing heavily on new voters, hoping to register enough of his supporters so the state becomes more favorable for him. Obama might not be able to win with the voters who showed up for the last presidential election, but if he can pull in enough new ones, the odds change.

"We're going to try and shape the electorate," Plouffe says. "Not fundamentally reshape, but shift it." Four years ago, President Bush crushed Kerry in North Carolina, winning 56-44 with voter turnout of 64 percent. Obama's aides think they can drive up black voter turnout by about 25 percent or 30 percent, which would add a few points to his total — enough to tilt the state if it's really close. The painstaking search for votes that Obama is deploying all around the country is hitting North Carolina, too — one political operative told me she saw Obama volunteers signing up supporters outside a small African-American community theater in Durham after a recent performance. In Charlotte, clipboard-toting Obama volunteers are semifixtures outside Price's Chicken in South End and the U.S. immigration office near Tyvola and South Tryon.

Obama's campaign manager for the state, Marc Farinella (who worked on Erskine Bowles's Senate race in 2002) says the operation is also looking at young voters, no matter what race they are, hoping to get them to turn out in higher numbers. "Obama receives a great deal of support among voters who are under thirty years of age," Farinella says. "This is an important group for us."
The late, contested Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton might have helped kick off that effort. From January to July, nearly 260,000 new voters registered in the state (36,000 in Mecklenburg County alone). New Democratic registrations outnumbered new Republican ones by about twenty to one. (Another good sign for Obama: nearly half as many new black voters registered as did new white voters.) Obama had thirty-eight field offices, everywhere from Asheville to Winston-Salem, for the primary. Now the operation that helped him clobber Clinton is getting ready for McCain.

When Farinella arrived in Raleigh in June, he was already impressed by what greeted him. "I've been doing this kind of stuff for about twenty years now," he says. "It's really remarkable what's happening in this state." The campaign opened four offices in July, including one in Charlotte, and could wind up with more if the race stays close. Obama's North Carolina staff grew pretty quickly: just a few weeks after Farinella got to town, he hired Kevin Monroe, who used to be former Sen. John Edwards's man in Charlotte, to be the campaign's political director. Charlotte native Susan Lagana, who worked for Bowles and Easley, came on board to handle press in the state.

Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham area are going to be key if Obama's going to do well. "The North Carolina electorate is reshaping itself, because the economy is reshaping the state," says Guillory. "We've become much more of a metropolitan state." Charlotte, especially, could be one of the main battlegrounds in the race. If Obama can do well in the area, it'll help cushion him against McCain's strongholds in rural parts of the state. Voter registration in Mecklenburg County was up 5 percent this year, a little higher than the statewide increase of 4 percent, a sign of the area's interest in the election already. (Obama won the county big in the primary, though Clinton won all the surrounding counties except Cabarrus and Rowan.) Four years ago, the county was one of the few bright spots for Kerry — he won Mecklenburg, though he lost the outer suburbs.

That might be why, in the middle of a week in late July when most politicians headed to the beach and turned off their cell phones, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean showed up in Charlotte on a bus covered with Obama slogans to publicize Obama's voter registration drive. "We will never again make the mistake of not going to the South and proudly delivering our message," Dean told about 150 people who met at the campaign office before fanning out to knock on doors. They were looking for some of the 1 million or so North Carolinians who aren't registered to vote (though they were especially looking for the ones who would vote for Obama if they did cast ballots).

But even if you buy Obama's promises to bring out hordes of new voters, the math will be tough. Whites make up the vast majority of the state's electorate, and Obama only got 36 percent of the white vote when he beat Clinton in May. Exit polls showed Kerry won 27 percent of the white vote in 2004, so Obama will have to improve on that by a lot. Young voters alone won't be enough to make up the difference. In a close election, at least some new white voters will show up, too, which could offset some of Obama's gains among blacks.

In fact, even if Obama succeeds in increasing black turnout by 30 percent, he'd still have to win four white votes for every three Kerry won to beat McCain, according to calculations by Tomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (whose Ph.D. is from UNC-Chapel Hill) "Is that possible?" says Schaller, whose recent book, Whistling Past Dixie, argues that Democrats don't need to do well in the South to win national elections. "I suppose, but that's three 'if's: that's if he can get the black registration up by 5 percent, and if white turnout doesn't respond to that, and if he can get four votes for every three. If your aunt had nuts, she'd be your uncle."

So most Republicans aren't too worried about losing the state this fall. "The reality is the math doesn't add up," says Paul Shumaker, Sen. Richard Burr's chief political consultant. "It just does not add up." McCain isn't putting anywhere near as much early emphasis on North Carolina as Obama. By mid-summer, he still hadn't opened an office in the state or named a campaign manager—though he did respond to Obama's wave of early ads by buying some TV time of his own in July, as you probably saw while flipping through summer reruns.

And that might really be what Obama's trying to do in North Carolina—draw McCain into a fight there. "All the hype by Obama's people to say North Carolina is in play is an effort to make John McCain spend money where he doesn't have to spend money," Shumaker says. One main reason Obama opted out of the federal public financing system for the election was so he could raise enough money (an estimated $300 million) to force McCain to play defense. With only $84 million of his own to spend, McCain can't afford to waste his resources on states that aren't really up for grabs. Obama, on the other hand, can throw some cash into places like North Carolina just to see if he can build some momentum. But Obama's campaign is pretty adamant: its operation in the state isn't just a head feint. "We are here to win," Farinella says. "We are going to win this state. To the Obama campaign…this is a battleground state, and we are treating it as a battleground state."

One thing's clear, though — four years from now, you won't have to ask whether campaigns are playing for keeps in North Carolina. For a preview of where the state's heading, just look a little bit north. In strategy briefings with reporters and with Democratic fundraisers, Obama aides lump North Carolina in with Virginia—a state that everyone, from Obama aides to McCain strategists and independent observers, says really is up for grabs this year. Virginia, with new residents moving in for white-collar jobs in the suburbs of Washington — and a Democratic governor, a Democratic senator, and another Democrat expected to win the other Senate seat this fall — may be what North Carolina's political future looks like. "North Carolina is like Virginia-lite," Schaller says.

In fact, by 2012, the state may have become moderate enough that a Democrat like Obama can do just as well with North Carolinians as with voters in places like Colorado and New Mexico, where the election may wind up being determined this year. And Democrats won't have any choice but to try even harder than Obama is now.

"When you're talking about these really vital areas, like Charlotte," Guillory says, "that's kind of charting the future of where this country's going — you've got to be in play there to be a national leader."

Mike Madden is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for

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