Obama, Democrats Facing Challenges in North Carolina
In 2008, President Obama won the state of North Carolina by just over 14,000 votes out of over 4.2 million cast, marking the first time since 1976 that a Democrat carried the Tar Heel State in the presidential race. Four years later, Obama and national Democrats are making a hard push there, electing to hold the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and preparing to invest significant resources in one of 2012's premiere battlegrounds.
But as the party gears up for a full court press in North Carolina as it seeks to repeat wins at the presidential level and in the gubernatorial race, it will have to overcome several obstacles, as illustrated by developments in the state in the years since Obama's victory.
Gov. Bev Perdue's Thursday announcement that she is retiring illustrates one the main challenges Democrats face in the state, holding onto the governor's mansion. First elected in 2008, Perdue was hamstrung by poor approval ratings and faced multiple PR setbacks during the last year. Her 2008 Republican opponent, now former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, has spent much of the past year gearing up for a rematch and has put up impressive fundraising numbers.
"I've always thought her problems were personality based, which is very problematic when you are on the wrong side of that," said veteran North Carolina Republican strategist Paul Shumaker, of Perdue's struggles.
Perdue's tight 2008 victory (she won by 3 percent) can be attributed to several factors. One, Obama's presence on the ticket was a boost down ballot. According to the Almanac of American Politics, Obama received 40 percent more votes than Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., did in 2004, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., only upped George W. Bush's total by nine percent.
But Perdue also outperformed Obama among white, blue-collar voters in the state. According to exit polling data, Perdue won 38 percent of white voters without a college education (a group who made up 41 percent of the electorate that year) while Obama won just 33 percent. Democrats' struggles worsened with white, blue-collar voters in the 2010 midterm election, something that could imperil the party's chances this year in North Carolina and in other states.
It's also a different economic time, something Democrats are forced to confront everywhere this year. In North Carolina, the challenge is especially palpable: The unemployment rate in the state in October of 2008 was 7.3 percent. In December of 2011, it was 9.9 percent, according to preliminary estimates.
In the governor's race, there is no clear Democratic alternative to Perdue right now, even as just three weeks remain until the beginning of the filing period. But some Democrats see that as more an opportunity than a problem.
"Most gubernatorial reelects are often referendums on the governor. This election is not about a person," said North Carolina Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson, whose firm is doing work for Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who announced he was running for governor almost as quickly as Perude announced she was stepping down on Thursday.
But Dalton's far from a clear favorite. Attorney General Roy Cooper, who would have been a very formidable presence, has taken his name out of the running. A slate of others including a former member of Congress (Bob Etheridge) and current member (Heath Shuler) are currently mulling bids. Members of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee want Rep. Brad Miller to run.
McCrory meanwhile, is getting ready to officially launch his bid next Tuesday. Democratic strategists say that Perdue's exit is an opportunity to make the race about McCrory. But he's not an incumbent, and the suggestion that the election will be referendum on him is an implicit acknowledgment of the uphill climb the party faces.
"It's different ballgame [with Perdue out of the running]. Who does the advantage go to? It goes to McCrory right now because he has more money in the bank and he has identity greater or as good or anybody out there and he gets to continues to raise the money without having to reload after a primary," said Shumaker.
But in selecting North Carolina for the convention and in identifying the state as a strong opportunity, Democrats have an eye on elections beyond 2012, a smart play considering population trends in the state.
Non-whites were responsible for 61.2 percent of the state's population growth form 2000-2010. Hispanics -- which tend to favor Democratic candidates -- accounted for 28.3 percent of North Carolina's population growth.