The ground is shifting under North Carolina politics.
Until four years ago, North Carolina was a sure bet for Republican presidential candidates. The governor’s mansion was an equally foregone conclusion for Democrats.
But in the run up to this year’s election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have largely run in a dead heat. And Democrat Walter Dalton has trailed Pat McCrory by as much as seven points in the race for the governor’s mansion.
Such a scenario in North Carolina was not long ago unthinkable.
President Obama’s competitive spot in polls is especially mind-boggling, considering the decisive 60/40 split that enshrined a gay marriage ban in North Carolina’s constitution last May.
How could the groundswell that brought President Obama to power in 2008 and the red heat that pushed conservatives into the driver’s seat at the North Carolina General Assembly in 2010 coexist in North Carolina in 2012?
The best answer political scientists can pin down at this point is a combination of demographic change, ground game and money.
President Obama won North Carolina by a razor-thin margin four years ago.
This year, President Obama’s campaign clearly lacks the momentum that Candidate Obama’s campaign commanded in 2008.
That logic alone would seem to suggest North Carolina is bound to turn tail and head toward its historic home in the GOP’s win column. But, the logic that’s driving the polls isn’t that simple.
The percentage of white voters in North Carolina has gone down 1.4 percentage points in the last four years, while minorities have increased.
“That is significant because the non-white population of North Carolina is a very critical component to the president’s share of the vote,” said Jonathan Kappler, Research Director of the NC Free Enterprise Foundation. “More diversity is helping the president.”
Kappler believes the state is still a toss-up, as does William Peace University Political Science Professor David McLennan.
“I don’t think we ought to just write the state off for Romney. It’s going to be a lot about organizing,” he said.
Enter Obama’s second advantage. The president currently has 53 campaign offices across the state compared to Mitt Romney’s 23, according to their campaign websites.
“Obama has a very robust ground game,” Kappler said, much of it a holdover from the political infrastructure of 2008. That means more people knocking on doors, more people making calls, and more people asking for donations.
But if the story of 2008 was grassroots fundraising, 2012 is the year of the Super-PAC.
As evidenced by the presidential ads that creep behind every sitcom and YouTube video, the race for North Carolina in many ways boils down to a storytelling competition.
“If people hear a message over and over again, it can sink in even if it’s not correct,” McLennan said. “The truthfulness of a specific ad is unfortunately not all that important.”
According to NBC in early September, North Carolina ranked fourth on the list of spending for presidential TV ads, behind Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
While Romney’s campaign had spent half as much as Obama’s $21.9 million, pro-Romney Super-PAC’s spent an additional $21.2 million on television ads in the state.
All spending combined, $34.5 million was spent on pro-Romney ads.
Super-PAC’s are shadowy groups that can accept unlimited donations from individuals or corporations, while keeping the names of those donors secret. The only catch is that they aren’t allowed to “coordinate” with the candidates they support. It’s a situation nearly impossible to police.
According to PolitiFact, a fact-checking organization created by the Tampa Bay Times, the majority of ads in the presidential race are only “half-true.” And it’s these half-true narratives that are competing to bring home the White House.
“There’s a special place in heaven for the fact-checkers,” McLennan said. “The problem is that fact-checking is often so far behind that the thrust [of the message] has already been set.”
Pat McCrory stands on a platform of 21st century conservatism: cut regulations, cut taxes and unleash energy to expand the economy. Walter Dalton is playing the role of old school Southern Democrat: educational opportunities lead to economic expansion.
Exactly what either candidate will be able to accomplish as governor depends on the next legislature.
“The way the new [redistricting] maps have been drawn, it’s basically a fact that Republicans are going to control both houses,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College.
If that’s true, the new governor will be playing to a crowd that has spent the last two years staking out ground on what is fast becoming the new Southern right.
GOP lawmakers want to cut or altogether eliminate corporate taxes and income taxes. They want to pass voter ID laws. They support tapping North Carolina’s energy resources. They are leery of expanding Medicaid or outright oppose it.
Other Southern states like South Carolina and Texas have already accomplished much of what North Carolina’s general assembly would like to enact. The only difference: those states have Republican governors.
Current Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, blocked some of the Republican general assembly’s agenda during the past two years.
McCrory may now be poised to take on the role.
After he lost a tight race to Perdue in 2008, he basically kept campaigning as if the race never ended. Such extensive time as the presumptive GOP nominee enabled him to raise mountains of cash.
Dalton has been fighting from the opposite corner. Perdue didn’t declare her intention not to run until the primary season was well underway. This put Dalton at a significant disadvantage raising money and creating an organizing infrastructure.
In a Wilmington debate, McCrory conducted himself as someone who could afford to be above the fray. As Dalton took shots at McCrory’s record and platform, McCrory dismissed them with answers that amounted to the metaphorical wave of a hand.
But what kind of Republican would McCrory be if he becomes governor?
“Does he replay his role as Charolotte mayor, as a kind of moderate almost progressive at times within the Republican ranks or does he fit into the mold of the Tea Party conservative?” Bitzer posed.
As Mayor of Charlotte, McCrory wasn’t afraid to unleash the resources of the government. He pushed to raise a half-cent sales tax that would fund light rail and expand public transportation.
It’s the kind of measure Republicans in Wake County are currently blocking.
“What he would be facing in the general assembly now with a very strong tea party faction in the NC GOP is a an unwillingness to use government,” Bitzer said.
At the Wilmington debate, McCrory was asked where he would separate himself from the conservative legislature.
He cited midnight sessions, but not substantive issues such as slashing taxes or harvesting natural resources.
A governor Dalton, on the other hand, Bitzer said, “will be put in the position of what the President is currently experiencing: gridlock.”
“The Lieutenant Governor has staked a campaign revolving around education. That would naturally set some tensions between the governor and the legislature. How much would a Democratic governor and a Republic legislature be able to achieve?”
The other important question for voters is, what wouldn’t a Republican governor and Republican legislature be able to achieve?