In 2008, Barack Obama pulled out a narrow win in North Carolina. Some would call it a fluke, pinning the GOP defeat in the Tar Heel State to John McCain’s dysfunctional field campaign strategy. After all, North Carolina had long been a conservative bastion, and the last Democratic presidential candidate to capture the state prior to Obama was Jimmy Carter, a native Southerner, in 1976. Still, Team Obama surely read something in the “tobacco leaves” because it invested significant resources into a state not typically considered a presidential battleground.
Moving forward to 2010, we saw the Republicans reverse field and win control of the North Carolina state legislature for the first time in more than 100 years. Still, in a year that saw a Republican-leaning wave in the midterm Congressional elections across the country, the GOP only managed to flip one U.S. House seat in North Carolina, when Renee Ellmers won in the state’s Second Congressional District.
Next year, in 2012, we expect Team Obama to again put forth a full-court press in North Carolina. Certainly, by scheduling the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the Democrats are signaling that they want to contest North Carolina. Team Obama knows that North Carolina can be won again and is laying down a very public marker.
What makes the president’s team want to put North Carolina at the top of its list of target states? According to The Wall Street Journal’s Valerie Bauerlein, the 2010 U.S. Census indicates that North Carolina “grew 18.5% during the decade — compared with 9.7% for the U.S. overall — …[t]he growth was spread across all demographics but was particularly strong among Hispanics, whose population more than doubled to 800,120.” Additionally, “[f]ive of North Carolina’s six largest cities are now majority minority, with more blacks and Hispanics than whites…Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro became majority-minority in the decade, joining Durham and Fayetteville.” Simply put, the Democrats have been counting votes and think they have a strengthening hand in North Carolina against the Republicans’ ongoing struggle to connect with Hispanics and minorities.
Given the Democrats’ convention city pick and the Census numbers, we’re surprised that North Carolina is not getting more emphasis as a 2012 battleground state. For example, political handicappers Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook are indicating that Missouri and its 10 electoral votes will be harder to pull into the GOP column than North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes. For the prognosticators, the preference for Missouri over North Carolina may be nostalgia for the traditional pecking order of presidential battleground states.
For Republicans, the Show-Me State represents ground they can’t afford to cede. After all, in 2008, Missouri was the only “battleground” state that candidate John McCain managed to win, even if the margin was razor thin. However, in 2012, it is important to remember that Obama now has an executive record and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who will also be running at the top of the ticket in Missouri, is up for reelection and seems to be playing a strategy of trying to distance herself from President Obama.
While we think the GOP will need to fight hard to win in Missouri, we also think that the landscape in North Carolina will warrant a much more focused effort from the eventual Republican presidential nominee. The GOP knows how to run a presidential campaign in Missouri. Unfortunately, it has only a few months to figure out a game plan for North Carolina before Team Obama runs up an insurmountable lead before the game even tips off.
Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.