North Carolina has been one of the hardest states to read this year.  Many political prognosticators say that NC is Lean Romney, others say it is a pure toss-up.  Who is right?  It’s possible that they’re both right.

It really depends on what one means as a toss-up.  If “toss-up” means that either candidate can ultimately win NC, then I think that’s correct.  Certainly, it would not be a surprise to me if Obama managed to eke out another victory in the Tar Heel State.

At the same time, it’s unlikely that he’ll do so without a significant popular vote victory.  This brings to mind an article from Nate Silver – North Carolina is irrelevant to the electoral math.  If Obama is winning in North Carolina, then he’s almost certainly winning in Virginia, which has similar demographics but is slightly more Democratic than North Carolina. If Obama has won Virginia, then he’s won the election.

So North Carolina is in the unique position of being a swing state, but also very unlikely to determine the outcome of the election.  As of this writing, North Carolina is #12 on Nate Silver’s list of “tipping point states” – behind New Mexico and Maine’s second congressional district.  This is a similar position that North Carolina held in 2008.  It was, so to speak, the cherry on top for Obama – nice to have, but not essential.  It’s also worth noting that Romney absolutely needs North Carolina to win; Obama does not.  (It is irritating when journalists describe North Carolina as a “must-win” for Obama.  They should know better.)

North Carolina, notably, is also an “inelastic” state.  This is a term also coined by Nate Silver.  Simply put, North Carolina does not have many swing voters.  Most of the swing voters tend to reside in suburban areas in the more populated counties of the state.  With Obama on the ticket, the Democratic and Republican coalitions are relatively even.  Thus, North Carolina is a swing state with not a lot of swing voters.

Let’s take a look at the PVI for North Carolina.  In 2008, it was R+6.97.  North Carolina voted 6.97% more Republican than the national average.  North Carolina’s inelasticity has a major effect on its PVI.  If Obama wins in a blowout, it’s likely that Republicans will still do very well in the state – maybe not enough to win, but right around 48%, 49% of the vote. Thus a bigger Obama win will make the state appear more Republican than it actually is.  What if Romney wins in a landslide? Well, again, there are not too many swing voters, and the Obama coalition of blacks and well-educated white urbanites is relatively intact.  Romney may be winning huge nationally but Obama will still be holding up very well in North Carolina. Under such circumstances, it is possible that North Carolina’s PVI will be more Democratic than the national average.

Of course, nobody is predicting a landslide for either candidate.  But it is almost certain that Obama will not do as well this year as he did, nationally, in 2008.  Obama won North Carolina by about one third of a percentage point.  Therefore, one would expect another North Carolina victory to be impossible for Obama.  But it’s not – again, the coalitions in the state are relatively even and are not prone to swings.

This also ignores the fact that North Carolina has probably gotten more Democratic since 2008.  The base of Democratic voters has likely grown since then.  For a long time now there has been an influx of transplants from the Northeast and elsewhere who are hostile to the Republican Party.  This influx allowed Obama to win North Carolina in 2008 and is likely to keep North Carolina on the swing state list for some time to come – or, quite possibly, eventually transform North Carolina into a Democratic-leaning state.  We’ve already seen that happen in Virginia, where the growth of the Northern Virginia area, populated by government workers, has transformed the Old Dominion into not only a swing state, but arguably the most important swing state in the election.

So, who has the advantage in North Carolina this year?  It’s hard to say.  Right now, Nate Silver ranks North Carolina as “likely Romney”, with an 82.4% chance of winning the state in November.  This is his strongest position in North Carolina since Silver’s projections began over the summer.  The polling has also had some pretty discernible trendlines.  After the May primary, Romney took the lead in the state.  This was also after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment One.  The next day, President Obama came out for gay marriage, seen as a rebuke on the state.  A lot of people in politics said that anger over Obama’s announcement was the reason for Romney’s poll boost.  While Obama probably hurt himself in North Carolina with the gay marriage announcement, I do not think that was the reason for Romney taking the lead.  Instead, it was the honeymoon period for Romney, after his primary victory, that gave him the lead in the state.

Romney continued to lead into the summer, though his leads declined until the Democratic National Convention.  The DNC actually did not provide Obama with a clear boost in the state polls – that’s North Carolina’s inelasticity at work again.  But the 47% comments made by Mitt Romney propelled Obama into the lead in the state.  Nate Silver’s election projection gave Romney a 58% chance of carrying NC and designated the state a “toss-up”.  In the “now-cast” Obama became a slight favorite.  And nationwide, Obama was leading solidly.  Only at this point did Obama begin to see an edge in North Carolina.

But the debate performance by Governor Romney in early October changed the dynamics of the race again.  Nationally, Romney has almost pulled into a tie with the President.  There has been little post-debate polling in the state following the debate, making it hard to gauge where the state is right now.  A recent Gravis Marketing poll (a bad, very Republican-leaning poll) gave Romney a 9-point lead.  And a Rasmussen Reports poll released today has Romney leading in the state, 51%-48%.

This Rasmussen number stands out.  Rasmussen is a typically Republican-leaning pollster.  This also makes Rasmussen of being the unique poll showing Romney doing worse post-debate.  Is Obama actually doing better in North Carolina following the debate?  Almost certainly not.  Instead, it’s likely that some of the public polls with partisan leans are starting to look more realistic.  We will need a couple more polls to confirm where North Carolina really stands right now.

Most insiders, on both the Democratic and Republican side, expect Romney to win the state.  “A hard lift” is the term I’ve heard most Democratic insiders use when speaking of Obama’s chances in the state this year.  Hard, but not impossible.  And interestingly, the Obama campaign seems to believe that if they win the state this year, it’ll be even closer than it was four years ago.  Michelle Obama said this a couple of weeks ago when she was in Greenville. Brad Crone, a Democratic consultant in North Carolina, has gone so far as to say that Romney will win the state, and that Romney’s ground game is just as good as Obama’s.  This last claim I find dubious, but Republicans are certainly not taking the state’s 15 electoral votes for granted this year.  Their ground game is better than in 2008, a year in which Democrats did a phenomenal job turning out their voters while Republicans did a poor job.  This year, you’re going to see both sides do a good job at getting their supporters to the polls.

What do the internal polls say?  Apparently they show a very tight race.  However, it’s been reported (by Charlie Cook) that most expect the state to wind up in the Romney column.  This, to me, is quite puzzling.  If the polls are tight, what makes them so confident that Romney will ultimately prevail?  Maybe there’s something in the internal polls that do not look good for Democrats, perhaps in the composition of undecided voters.

The Republicans “in the know” whom I’ve talked to say basically the same thing, that Romney will win the state.  When I press them for a margin of victory, they usually say that it’ll be one or two points, maybe slightly more than the margin by which Obama carried the state.  Again, I am a little puzzled by this.  A 2 point lead is certainly not something to be confident about.  Then again, maybe it relates to North Carolina’s inelasticity.  A 2 point lead in the polls in North Carolina, for example, is much more significant than a 2 point lead in Colorado.  Simply put, it’s very easy for Obama to get 48% of the vote share, but very hard for him to top 50%.  He has a very high floor but a very low ceiling.

There are other indicators besides polling.  One can look at the registered voters in North Carolina.  Since 2008, unaffiliated voters have spiked.  Both Democrats and Republicans have lost voters, but Democrats have lost more.  No doubt this is because of North Carolina’s status as a long-time Democratic stronghold.  Many of these voters are older, more conservative Democrats who might be more inclined to vote Republican, so this should not necessarily be considered as a bad sign for the Obama campaign.  Notably, the white share of registered voters is down to 72%, while blacks and other minorities have been added to the voter rolls.  Organizing for America, the turnout operation for the Obama camp, has had a lot of success in registering voters.  There are some reports that they have registered 300,000 new voters since 2011.  I am a little skeptical of this number.  Just because OFA has registered them does not mean that all of them are Democrats or even that they will turn out to vote in November.  That said, it is certainly a testament to the strength of Obama’s campaign apparatus.

The Obama campaign has also opened up 53 offices in North Carolina, while Romney’s campaign has less than half of that.  I am a little dubious as to the efficacy of campaign offices.  As one of Romney’s advisers said, “What could all of these campaign staffers possibly be doing?”  Having a huge number of offices is of course not a bad thing, but the disparity should also not be taken as a sign of weakness for Romney.  Republicans really don’t have a lot to benefit from opening a massive number of offices because most Republican voters will turn out anyway and don’t require any help.  Democrats, however, are more reliant on low-income people and minorities, who typically turn out in higher rates.  OFA has opened these offices to reduce this turnout gap.

Then there is the money spent by the campaigns.  This is actually not a very reliable indicator, because one is never certain of the motivations that a candidate has for spending money.  For example, if the Romney campaign spending in North Carolina surges, does it mean he is worried about his chances in the state, or is he merely trying to “lock in” the state for the Republicans?  One thing is for certain: both campaigns have reduced their spending here since the huge spending spree during the summer.  There have been many rumors that the Obama campaign is making a “stealth withdrawal”.  Karl Rove recently stated that the Democrats are making a “token effort” in North Carolina.  They are spending less in North Carolina than in any other battleground state, and keep in mind that North Carolina is #10 in the country in terms of population.

Is the Obama campaign making a “stealth withdrawal”?  Two things.  One, if the Obama campaign was withdrawing from North Carolina, they certainly would not want to make a big fuss about it, particularly after Romney has the momentum following the debate.  It just wouldn’t make a good headline.  So the “token effort” theory has some merit.

At the same time, it’s possible that Obama is paring down his television efforts because North Carolina is, after all, irrelevant to the electoral map.  It would be nice to win, sure, but better save some of that money for Ohio and Virginia.  At the same time, there aren’t a whole lot of swing voters to reach out to.  Maybe huge television advertising has diminishing returns, and Obama is relying more on his turnout effort.  If it works, it works, and hey, NC would be pretty nice to have. If not – oh well.  There’s really no realistic scenario, at least not at this point, where North Carolina is pivotal to the outcome.  The only people who really know for sure are Obama campaign strategists.

So, to sum it up, North Carolina is a swing state, but not a 50/50 toss-up.  Most expect Romney to prevail here.  At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine Obama pulling out another win here.  It is especially easy to conceive of another Obama victory here if he wins nationwide by a significant margin (4-5 points).  But ultimately, it’s unlikely that the entire election will depend on Tar Heel voters.  That’s a special status reserved to voters in Ohio, Virginia, and maybe Colorado.

Note: Recently, a Suffolk University pollster announced that their firm would no longer be polling North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida because it is believed that they are no longer in play for Obama.  This is not only stupid, but polling malpractice.  It’s even more foolish than 1948, when the polling ended prematurely because it was widely assumed that Thomas Dewey would win the election handily.  At least in that case, Dewey was actually winning before they stopped.  Romney was behind in their polls of Virginia and Florida, and now it is assumed that after the debate that Romney is not only ahead in those states, but that they are now unattainable for the Obama campaign.  It’s also worth noting that Suffolk University has never even polled North Carolina this cycle – not that I would consider their results to be reliable anyway.  So much of this pollster’s comments have been refuted already by much more learned people, so I’ll stop here.

Coming up next: an analysis of “swing counties” in North Carolina, and how they might vote in this year’s presidential election.

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