Tagging along with Obama and McCain canvassers in North Carolina.

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 30 2008 5:36 PM

How Does a Red State Turn Blue?

Tagging along with Obama and McCain canvassers in North Carolina.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—North Carolina is certainly not a bellwether state. At the same time, it is almost certainly true that if Barack Obama wins North Carolina, he will win the presidency. A blue Carolina—the polls close at 7:30 p.m. ET, so we should know fairly soon on Tuesday—could precede a blue Missouri, Colorado, and Nevada. And while an Obama victory would be historic for the United States, it would be even more momentous for North Carolina.

The state has been reliably conservative for decades—Jimmy Carter was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina. Any conversation about change in the state's politics has to reckon with Jesse Helms, former head of the Senate intolerance committee, who represented the state for 30 years. Among the Democrats who failed to unseat him were Jim Hunt, the state's legendary governor; and Harvey Gantt, Charlotte's only black mayor. Helms' "Hands" campaign ad against Gantt has become the textbook example of race-baiting.

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That legacy is part of the reason why no one expected North Carolina to be in play this year. But with only days remaining in the campaign, here we are, with the race effectively a dead heat. What happened? To try to get an idea, I spent some time with Obama and McCain volunteers working in and around Charlotte.

But part of the answer, of course, is—nothing happened. North Carolina has long had a strong Democratic Party. All but three of the state's governors since 1948 have been Democrats. More than half of the state legislators are Democrats. And a million years ago in this campaign, there was actually a North Carolina Democrat running for president.

It has now been 12 years since Helms was re-elected. (He retired in 2002 and died earlier this year.) Since 1996, North Carolina's population has jumped by more than 1.5 million people. Many of those folks are Democrats, primarily from New York and Florida, plus plenty of rust-belters from Ohio and Pennsylvania. The state ranks high on immigration, too; North Carolina's Hispanic population increased by 8 percent from July 2006 to July 2007.

All of which has contributed to a very tense election season in North Carolina. More than 30 cars had their tires slashed at an Obama rally in Fayetteville, the carcass of a baby bear was left on the campus of Western Carolina University with two Obama signs around its neck, and Republican Rep. Robin Hayes remarked that "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God" as he introduced John McCain at a rally in Concord.

In addition to North Carolina being a sudden swing state in the presidential race, it's also busy with Senate and gubernatorial races. In 2002, Elizabeth Dole defeated Bill Clinton's former chief of staff by a nine-point margin to take Helms' place. But Dole has become less popular lately, dogged by a ranking as the 93rd most effective senator and a report that in 2006, Dole spent just 13 days in the state. Dole's now running a few points behind state Sen. Kay Hagan, and the top of the ticket hasn't been able to give her much help. More than $17 million has been spent on ads in the state's Senate race alone. It's safe to say that any North Carolinian within sight of a TV has seen a few political ads.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Obama's infamous ground game still meets some resistance in densely Republican parts of the state. Though many Republican candidates are avoiding the party label, Republicans in North Carolina will tell you exactly what they are. In a campaign narrative that has pitted urban elites vs. rural voters in "real America," Charlotte falls right in the middle. The city is the second-biggest banking center in the United States, and nearly every tall building bears the mark of either Bank of America or Wachovia. Charlotte has been called "one big suburb," and it does feel that way—the small downtown is known as Center City, and then there's everything else, sprawling for miles and miles into South Carolina.

Charlotte's in the middle politically, too. Four years ago, Mecklenburg County went for Kerry, but just barely: 51.6 percent to Bush's 48 percent. The neighboring counties of Gaston and Union are often considered Charlotte's outskirts, and they voted for Bush by 68-32 and 70-30 margins, respectively, making them some of Bush's strongest counties in the state.

On Saturday, the Obama campaign rallied groups of canvassers at its main Charlotte office, tucked behind a Best Buy and a Target. Twice a day on the weekend, bands of volunteers are dispatched into Democratic parts of the city to get out the vote. (Early voting has already started, or residents can wait for Election Day.) But it's the hard sells that interest me, the Carolinians who still aren't quite sure about "that one."

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