In coming to North Carolina to accept his party’s renomination, President Obama will be attempting the political equivalent of a kid with mediocre grades applying to an Ivy League school. He will be, in essence, reaching.
North Carolina, after all, is a state that should be firmly in Mitt Romney’s camp. Before 2008, the state had not voted Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. The unemployment rate stood at 9.6 percent in July, more than half a point higher than it was when Obama took office and 1.3 points higher than the national average. And recent polls show Romney is ahead—an Elon University survey released on Monday, conducted for The Charlotte Observer, showed Romney leading Obama 47 percent to 43 percent.
But Obama is showing no signs of giving up. His campaign has already spent nearly $22.8 million on television advertising in the Tar Heel State, including just over $600,000 this week alone. Republican groups see the state as competitive, too: American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity, two of the wealthiest anti-Obama outside groups, are spending nearly $1 million combined on advertising this week.
In the complex calculus of the Electoral College, North Carolina is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of Romney’s path to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. For Obama, it is much less important—he has plenty of paths to 270 that don’t go through the state.
Back in 2008, as Obama’s camp tried to build a broader map than the party strategy traditionally called for, North Carolina was among three historically Republican states—along with Virginia and Indiana—that Obama’s senior strategists targeted early. David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager; John Anzalone, a key member of the polling team; and Larry Grisolano, who directed paid media for the 2008 team, all saw the state as winnable, according to several former high-level Obama staffers.
Joel Benenson, Obama’s chief pollster, said that the team had reason for hope because North Carolina was changing so rapidly. Migration from the North, especially into the Research Triangle, brought an influx of minorities, highly educated whites, and younger voters. By late October, the 2008 campaign had more than 300 paid staffers on the ground, operating out of more than 50 offices around the state. One Obama strategist dedicated to North Carolina said that the operation had at least one volunteer in every precinct.
This year, the campaign has renewed the 2008 effort. The Obama for America website lists 49 office locations around North Carolina, from Elizabeth City, just south of Norfolk and Virginia Beach in the east, to Asheville and Hendersonville in the Appalachians in the west. Hosting the convention in Charlotte offers more guaranteed free media, the equivalent of a week of television time devoted almost exclusively to the president and his message.