The race in NC

If the past is any indication, I should be fielding calls this week asking if NC is still really in play.  I’ll answer their questions because, I do like to be quoted in the news.  What I really should do, though is just sent them to Nate Cohn’s latest blog post on NC:

How could Obama lose 7 points nationally, yet remain close in a state that he won by just 14,000 votes in a historic election? The answer lies in the resilience of Obama’s diverse coalition and the changing composition of North Carolina’s electorate.

For the most part, Obama’s biggest losses have come from predominantly white states where Obama won plenty of moderate, former Bush voters—like Wisconsin, Montana, and Indiana. North Carolina is relatively insulated from Obama’s losses, since most of Obama’s gains came from young voters, college educated whites, and African Americans, three groups where Obama’s support has remained relatively resilient. Indeed, nearly half of Obama’s ’08 voters in North Carolina were non-white—more than any other battleground state. From this perspective, North Carolina has not moved toward the Democrats, but the rest of the country, where white working class voters play a more central role in the Democratic coalition, has just moved away from Obama at a faster pace…

However, the changing composition of North Carolina’s electorate allows Obama to compensate for at least some of Obama’s losses since 2008, even if it only leaves the president with a narrow path to victory. According to the most recent voter registration data from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, the white share of registered voters has declined to 71.5 percent, from 73.4 percent on Election Day 2008 and 74.2 percent at this time four years ago.

And here’s the key:

In 2008, Obama’s North Carolina victory was more dependent on turnout from young or black than any other battleground state. Any meaningful reduction in turnout among either group, and perhaps especially among young voters who appear far less enthusiastic than they were in ’08, would quickly cause much of Obama’s newfound 2.5 point lead to vanish. Romney could then take the lead as old Obama ’08 supporters switch back to their Republican habits. After all, Obama’s ’08 performance was also bolstered by largely uncontested advertisements that allowed Obama to perform relatively well in rural North Carolina. And this doesn’t even account for surging Republican enthusiasm or a far more prepared GOP ground operation.

The polls suggest that this might be Obama’s fate in the Tar Heel state. The increasing non-white share of registered voters will allow Obama to compensate for a slight decline in Democratic enthusiasm or slight losses among swing voters, but it probably can’t overcome both—let alone if “slight” becomes “modest.” Whether Obama can overcome his deficit in the polls hinges on the possibility that Obama’s strong ground operation and same-day voting combine to defy predictions of lower turnout.

So, certainly an advantage for Romney at this point, but far from a done deal by any means.  Of course, when I’ve relied extensively on Cohn in the past, I’ve actually cited him in my interviews.  It is interesting that it is completely within journalistic norms to cite a professor citing a reporter/blogger for his analysis, but one would never simply cite the reporter/blogger.  Then again, I suppose in some way my PhD validates Cohn’s analysis.  Anyway, I don’t think you’ll find a better explanation of why NC has remained so close and why Obama still has a decent shot to take the state.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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