Is North Carolina Still in Play for Obama?

Is North Carolina Still in Play for Obama?

By Erin McPike - September 12, 2012

Prior to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, aides to and allies of Mitt Romney's presidential effort insisted the race in North Carolina was close. Why they played the humble-expectations game is not clear, but now that the convention has come and gone, those same insiders say Romney has the race well in hand and that the Obama campaign will soon wind down its efforts in the Tar Heel State.

Not so, says the president’s campaign brain trust in Chicago. A robust operation remains in place.

The truth appears to lie somewhere in between.

Romney pollster Neil Newhouse crowed in a Monday memo that the Obama campaign “is laying the groundwork for a stealth withdrawal.” He cited the campaign’s television buy in the state “to understand how they view their chances there. The Obama campaign’s North Carolina television buy has dropped 35 percent compared to June, and they have run more than twice as much advertising over the past two weeks in Rochester, Minnesota (hitting a small slice of Iowa), than they have in any North Carolina market.” 

Placing his nominating convention in Charlotte was considered key to the president’s chances of winning the state in November. But the final-night venue change -- from 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium to the Time Warner Cable Arena, with less than a quarter of that capacity -- put a damper on the campaign’s organizing plans.

Obama’s team issued 65,000 acceptance-speech credentials to supporters and had another 19,000 supporters on a waiting list. Campaign officials admit to disappointment over the relocation of the president’s acceptance speech last Thursday -- no surprise given that they had repeatedly talked up how far the convention would go in mobilizing North Carolina voters.

Privately, Democratic operatives and even aides on the Obama team have been bearish about their chances of winning the Tar Heel State a second time (after eking out a 14,000-vote win in 2008), even though they believe the demographics are moving in their favor. (One senior staffer told RCP at the convention that if the president loses North Carolina in 2012, the party will “win it in 2016.”)

Still, despite the venue change, a significant amount of direct voter contact still took place. Each of the 84,000 supporters on the credential list provided a phone number to the campaign and had to go online to validate the credential or the wait list slot.

Consequently, a press aide told RCP, “the venue change didn’t meaningfully change our ground game. . . . We didn’t experience any setback.”

Rodell Mollineau, president of the pro-Democratic American Bridge 21st Century super PAC, suggested that North Carolina remains in play specifically because of the convention. “I think it gives us an opportunity where there would have been none if we didn’t do it there,” he told RCP. (The RCP Average shows Romney with a 3.5 percentage point lead.) 

And a Democratic strategist with ties to the Obama campaign pointed out that the convention earned the president bountiful -- and free -- in-state press coverage (though the convention on the whole was pricey). And though the strategist admitted that the campaign might reduce its presence in the state at some point, the relatively inexpensive North Carolina media market makes it one of the cheaper states in which to compete; as a result, he said, why not force Romney’s hand and make him spend more time and money there?

Campaign aides deny rumors that their offices have been vacant in recent days (though most of the offices will shut down on Wednesday to allow for all-staff training sessions). Obama’s North Carolina spokesman Cameron French insisted, “We are in North Carolina to stay and will continue to grow our organization across the state as we have since 2008.”

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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