RALEIGH, N.C. — By any number of indicators, President Obama shouldn’t have much of a chance in North Carolina next year. In no state was Obama’s 2008 win closer — he won by just 14,177 votes, or 0.3 percent of the electorate — and he’s less popular now. The economy, now Obama’s economy, is in worse shape. And voters here have turned against many Democrats, ousting a congressman and a slew of state lawmakers last fall.
But if Republican activists are feeling confident, you wouldn’t know it by what they’re doing and saying.
Republicans are poring over the details of how Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Jimmy Carter. They are trying to pass laws in the legislature to restrict the early-voting system that Obama used to such remarkable effect. And Republicans are preaching to anyone who will listen that those who think Obama couldn’t possibly win here again had better wake up and get to work.
“They turned out voters in record numbers last time, and we need to be ready,” said Robin Hayes, chairman of the North Carolina GOP and a former congressman who was defeated in the 2008 wave that Obama led. “We expect them to be as good and probably better. We know they’ll have more money. And if you think that’s not the case, you’re making a foolish mistake.”
The dynamics in North Carolina that worry Republicans — a booming minority population, an influx of more moderate voters and a changing set of priorities — are on display across other parts of the South as well, notably in Virginia and Florida, where Obama also won in 2008.
This time around, his campaign hopes to make a play for Georgia and Texas, seeing in those states the same sorts of economic and cultural changes as elsewhere in the South. An Obama victory in either would be a long shot, but a win in any of those Southern states would make it difficult for Republicans to capture the presidency.
In North Carolina, the changing nature of the state is on display regularly. At a recent forum on education, executives with drug maker GlaxoSmithKline and IBM, which have big presences in the Raleigh area’s Research Triangle Park, pleaded with Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) to oppose service cuts proposed by a new GOP majority in the state legislature.
In rural Wilson, 40 miles east of Raleigh, business and civic leaders seem to reflect the changing values and priorities of voters.
Sitting around a table at the local Chamber of Commerce to discuss the region’s economic struggles, business leaders lamented that they can’t find enough qualified workers to fill vacant jobs. Plant managers and farmers pleaded with state leaders to protect funding for schools, job-training programs and crime-prevention programs that the legislature is threatening to cut.
“This state is a pretty moderate state,” said former governor James B. Hunt Jr. (D). “An awful lot of people have moved in here who, whether they’re Democratic or Republican, are fairly middle of the road kinds of voters.”
Many Republicans worry that their party hasn’t entirely grasped the evolving nature of the South. To them, that means fully giving up on what was known as the “Southern strategy,” an approach to winning elections based largely on appeals to rural whites on cultural touchstones such as abortion and race.
“This is no longer only the party of Jesse Helms,” said Paul Shumaker, a GOP strategist based in Raleigh who advises, among others, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). “I tell my clients, and I tell others: ‘You need to quit looking through the rearview mirror, and you need to start looking through the windshield.’ ”
Hayes, the state GOP chairman, travels North Carolina these days trying to raise money with a PowerPoint presentation that lays out how formidable he thinks the “Obama Inc. machine” will be next year.
One slide shows what Obama did the first time around: He hired 400 paid staff members, opened dozens of field offices and recruited tens of thousands of volunteers on 32 college campuses. Another explains how he plans to do it again: by “maximizing” the under-40 and African American vote. Another alludes to the GOP disadvantage of having to wait nearly a year before knowing who the party’s nominee will be.
“Obama Inc.,” the slide reads, “has a three-plus year headstart on us.”
By all appearances, the Obama team is taking advantage of that lead. The president’s grass-roots campaign arm, Organizing for America, began revving up its operation in North Carolina this month, hiring new staff members and holding phone banks in large cities.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, dropped in on one of those phone banks in Raleigh last week to rally the troops. And a steady stream of proxies for the president, including first lady Michelle Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, have visited in recent months.
Perhaps most conspicuous of all, Obama’s team chose Charlotte to host the party’s convention next year. In 2008, Obama transformed the Democratic National Convention in Denver into a massive recruitment center that helped push him to victory in Colorado. Campaign strategists expect a repeat in Charlotte.
“It will be 2008 on steroids,” said Scott Falmlen, a Democratic consultant in Raleigh and a former executive director of the state party. “It’s going to be a showcase, on a monumental scale, about the state of North Carolina and the New South.”
Not all Republicans are ready to abandon the “Southern strategy,” a game plan that Helms famously used to great effect as recently as 1990 with a TV ad stoking white resentment over affirmative action. Even last year, amid a Republican surge, the tactic appeared in some rural corners in the form of a racially provocative mail piece.
Paid for by the state GOP and sent into a half-dozen legislative districts, the mailer took aim at a North Carolina law passed by Democrats that allows death-row inmates to appeal their sentences on the grounds of racial bias.
“It had a photo of a black person who was intended to look like a criminal,” said Joe Hackney, the Democratic minority leader of the state House.
But if those tactics still work in localized legislative races — as it is widely presumed they do — there is a growing belief that they are less effective statewide. Hayes said the GOP plans unprecedented outreach to blacks, Latinos and young voters.
“We’ve got specific goals and specific ideas that we’re using to let these constituencies, these strategic partners, know what we stand for,” he said.
Consider this math: In 1984, when Helms defeated Hunt to win his third term in the U.S. Senate, black voters made up 16 percent of the electorate, and Republicans needed about 60 percent of the white vote to win.
Contrast that with 2008, when Obama’s unprecedented success drawing out new voters — nearly 800,000 more voters cast ballots than in 2004 — led to blacks making up nearly a quarter of the electorate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) needed to get 65 percent of the white vote to win the state. He didn’t make it.
The Hispanic population has grown in North Carolina, opening another potentially fruitful group of voters to Obama and his recruitment operation.
“The state that Jesse Helms won five times — Obama carried it,” said Ferrel Guillory, a public policy professor at the University of North Carolina. “That is huge. Jesse Helms almost certainly could not win an election today in this state, were he here.”
Yet Republicans continue to give Democrats material to portray the GOP as out of step. In Raleigh, the Republican-controlled General Assembly is considering bills that would curtail early voting and voter registration and require a photo identification to cast a ballot.
Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis said the measures are intended to reduce voter fraud or costs, but Democrats say they are really about blocking young and minority voters. At the end of two weeks of early voting in 2008, 2.6 million North Carolinians had cast ballots — more than turned out on Election Day. And Obama won the early vote by about 170,000.
“They changed the universe in North Carolina,” said Tom Fetzer, a former state GOP chairman and former Raleigh mayor. “They changed the universe of people who voted.”