Facing South

Election 2008: How did Obama win NC?

We called North Carolina for Obama yesterday, and you can read some of my first thoughts about what it meant for the state to not only go Democratic, but elect the first African-American president, here.

I'll be writing more soon about what Obama's three victories in the South mean, disproving the pundits like Tom Schaller who vociferously claimed it couldn't happen. In July of 2008, Schaller declared with typical bombast in The New York Times that "Obama can write off Georgia and North Carolina" and gave him only the smallest of chances for winning Virginia.

Thankfully for Democrats, Obama didn't listen to him.

Obama's success in winning 18.6 million votes in 13 Southern states and driving record turnout across the region - while turnout nationally remained flat - will hopefully banish the "write off the South" mentality in Democratic circles for a while. It was always dubious -- and a recipe for long-term political suicide -- given that the South is the fastest-growing region in the country, home to half the nation's African-American population, and is showing the most rapid demographic change in America.

Now, Democrats also know that mentality is just plain wrong - and Republicans know they can't take the region for granted.

But back to North Carolina: How did Obama turn North Carolina blue? Here are six key factors that gave him the victory:

1 - Obama mobilized the base: Perhaps more than any other candidate could have, Obama mobilized his core base in North Carolina in record numbers. At the forefront were African-American voters, who added over 300,000 registrations in 2008 and went to Obama by 95%. Obama also won over young voters by large numbers: 74% of those under 30 went Obama. [UPDATE: According to Curtis Gans' new report, North Carolina showed the highest increase in voter turnout over 2004, largely due to gains in African-American and new voter turnout.]

2 - The growing urban South: Obama won 66% of voters in the state's growing urban areas -- 64% in the Raleigh-Durham area alone. According to Public Policy Polling, urban areas made up 303,000 of the 436,000 votes Obama needed to gain relative to John Kerry's performance in 2004.

3 - The economy: From manufacturing to the state's huge finance sector, the North Carolina economy got hammered this year. Unemployment was inching above 8%. Similar to national trends, 54% of those who were "very worried" about the economy in N.C. voted Obama; he also won 57% of those making less than $50,000 a year. The more the percentage of people worried about the economy went up, so did Obama's numbers.

4 - De-mobilized Republicans: N.C. Republicans, many of whom are aligned with the "values conservative" wing of the party, didn't seem to identify with McCain. The lack of excitement is reflected in the GOP's lackluster registration numbers in 2008. Of the 629,000 new voters registered in North Carolina between January and November, 54% were Democrats, 34% Independents -- and just 12% Republicans.

5 - Election reforms: In a tight race like this one, improvements to the state's voting system likely played a role. In 2007, advocates successfully pushed for same-day registration and voting at early voting sites -- and more than 185,000 North Carolinians took advantage of the law, especially newly-engaged voters who broke to Obama. Through aggressive publicity and education, the state also lowered the number of presidential votes "lost" due to the state's confusing straight-ticket ballot, adding thousands of presidential votes.

6 - Obama fought for it: Last but not least, Democrats won North Carolina because they fought for it. The Obama campaign was smart enough to realize that the above factors and others had made N.C. a battleground opportunity. But critically, Obama also had the resources and strategic sense to take the next step and attempt to capitalize on opportunity -- something the Democrats hadn't seriously tried in decades.

Obama had more than 50 field offices fanned throughout the state, deploying an army of some 21,000 staff and volunteers that knocked on doors, made calls and mobilized massive chunks of the electorate. Obama had spent $5 million on TV ads in N.C. by early October. Obama and his surrogates made dozens of campaign stops in the state, including Obama himself coming to Charlotte on the day before November 4.

By the time McCain realized the trouble he was in and fought back to defend the state, it was too late.

In short, several factors -- some long-term, like the state's changing demographics; others short-term, like the financial crisis -- created conditions that made North Carolina a pick-up opportunity for Obama.

But what ultimately made the difference is that Obama ignored the pundits and invested the time, resources and energy needed to clinch the deal -- ensuring not only his own victory, but wins for Democrats all the way down the ballot ... and a chance to make history in North Carolina.

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