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Obama's N.C. Overture May Pay Off in Virginia

Obama's N.C. Overture May Pay Off in Virginia

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 7, 2012


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- President Obama officially accepted his party's nomination Thursday night in a state many thought he would lose four years ago. Despite his previous underdog success here, the odds of the president winning the Tarheel State in November are even slimmer this time.

One indication of the obstacles he faces: Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by just 14,000 votes -- representing about two-thirds of the seats in the Time Warner Cable Arena. But nowhere in his speech to the 20,000 gathered there did the president mention, or thank, the Queen City. 

Obama gave the most important speech of his campaign thus far in a state where unemployment (9.6 percent) is higher than the national average, the Democratic governor and other congressional candidates are retiring in part to avoid difficult re-election bids, and where Republicans control the state legislature. Even Bill Clinton, who gave an electrifying speech to delegates Wednesday night, couldn’t carry this growing Southern state in his own presidential races.

But Obama didn’t just have Carolina on his mind as Democrats staged the convention here this week. The campaign sees up-and-coming Charlotte as a mega-organizing tool to help gain steam in other Southern battlegrounds, namely neighboring Virginia. The president trails Romney in North Carolina, but leads him in the Old Dominion. On the opening day of the convention, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx cited the border his state shares with Virginia, and suggested he anticipates some kind of “ripple effect” from the gathering in the South. Foxx and others hoped that free media in the lead-up to, and during the course of, the convention would pay dividends as neighboring-state voters see the enthusiasm emerging from Charlotte.

Obama bucked tradition by winning Virginia and North Carolina four years ago. The last Democrat to win the former was Lyndon Johnson; the last to win the latter was Jimmy Carter. The president hopes to repeat his victories in November, and sees potential in their similar demographics: Both states have a high youth population, are home to many universities and colleges, have a growing diversity in suburban areas, and are friendly to transplants and tech jobs. These dynamics buoyed Obama in 2008, but his political future in both battlegrounds is unclear.

“He really had a perfect storm in 2008 that allowed him to win [in North Carolina],” says Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “The economy was bad under the Republican administration, so people were willing to take a risk on Obama, who invested heavily in the state when McCain didn’t. . . . To me, the fact that everything went right in 2008 and he won in by very small amount suggests that when you don’t have everything right, it’s going to be difficult.”

The campaign, though, touts the strength of its ground operation in the state, which has been enhanced by hosting the convention. Staffers and volunteers hit the crowded streets here all week seeking to register voters. Registered Democrats already outnumber their Republican counterparts here by about 800,000, according to the state board of elections. Democrats also hoped to gin up enthusiasm for the president by having him accept the nomination at Bank of America Stadium, where the Carolina Panthers play and which has more than triple the capacity of Time Warner Cable Arena.

Of course, weather concerns scotched those plans. Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod suggested that the stadium had been an integral part of the mobilizing plan. “The stadium is a great venue. It’s a dramatic venue, but it’s also a great organizing tool,” he told RCP. “ . . . We were over-subscribed, so it was going to be great. But what we couldn’t risk were the thunderstorms.”

It did rain in Charlotte on Thursday, though the skies had cleared by the evening. But it wasn’t until the final day of the convention that the Democratic speakers really focused on the state. (Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, did thank Charlotte for hosting the event in his speech Tuesday night -- before giving a shout-out to his home state.)

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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