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North Carolina is Still a Toss-Up

No state gives political analysts more headaches than North Carolina, a state that barely voted for Obama in 2008's clear national victory yet remains competitive in this year's much tighter race. Yesterday, the Washington Post reclassified North Carolina as leaning Romney; I disagree. Although most would concede that Romney has a slight but discernible advantage in the Tar Heel state, North Carolina is still a toss-up. In fact, the scenarios for an Obama victory are far more plausible than other lean Romney states, like Missouri.

Superficially, North Carolina seems like a state that should lean Romney: Obama won it by just 14,000 votes in 2008, so it might be expected to prefer the GOP in a more competitive election. But Obama’s winning coalition has splintered unevenly, with Obama bleeding white working class support while holding firm among college educated whites and minorities. As a result, Obama should be resilient in states like North Carolina, where his coalition is disproportionately composed of the educated and diverse voters who continue to support Obama at 2008 levels. At the same time, demographic changes have further reduced the white working class’ share of the voting eligible population, albeit at a slower pace than over the previous eight years, giving Obama room to overcome modest losses among the sliver of white working class voters who supported him in 2008. These demographic realities ensure a close race in North Carolina so long as the basic demographic contours of the election endure.

This is not just an abstract calculation: The two campaigns are treating North Carolina like a toss-up state. Last week, the campaigns spent more in Charlotte than any other media market. This is not just Obama trying to nudge the state into the toss-up column—Romney and allies have matched Obama’s efforts dollar for dollar. The state level polling confirms a close race, with Obama trailing by about two percentage points. But the polls can’t tell the whole story in North Carolina, since Obama’s chances are unusually dependent on the composition of the electorate, rather than persuading marginal swing voters. Once Obama reaches approximately 35 percent of the white vote, plausible levels of minority turnout could push the President over the top. And if there is anything that we should not count on polls to accurately assess, it is the composition of the electorate four months in advance. In a state likely to be determined by turnout, the best we can do is assess whether Obama’s support among white voters is high enough for plausible non-white turnout scenarios to provide him with the win.

Recent polls show exactly that, with Obama on the cusp of the 35 percent threshold. It's worth noting that Obama is doing just as well among white voters in North Carolina in recent polls as he was doing on the eve of the 2008 election. If Obama can again generate historic turnout and support from African Americans, he would be positioned to narrowly carry the state. Could that happen? Certainly, since the voting eligible electorate is more diverse than four years ago. Will it happen? We probably will not know until Election Day, which is why the state is a toss-up.

WaPo's The Fix offers three arguments for moving North Carolina into the Romney column. First, North Carolina’s high unemployment rate supposedly gives Romney an edge, but the relationship between state economic performance and electoral outcomes is demonstrably weak. The Fix hasn’t moved other states on this basis, like Iowa or Virginia, where the state economies are stronger with respect to the nation than North Carolina’s economy is weak. Second, the Fix contends that North Carolina's  scandal-ridden Democratic Party will hold Obama back, but this is an assertion, not a fact, and I am inclined to dismiss it in the absence of any evidence indicating that perceptions of the President have been tarnished by the diminished brand of a state party. Third, although Romney leads by 2 points in state polls, that hardly constitutes a substantial margin, especially since the Washington Post continues to rate Wisconsin or Nevada as a toss-ups despite even more one-sided polling. As mentioned earlier, polls in North Carolina can’t tell the whole story until likely-voter models gain added credibility in October.

In a state decided by turnout, Romney seems to hold a slight advantage as long as GOP enthusiasm is elevated and young voters remain disinterested. But North Carolina’s unique demographic profile all but ensures one of the closest races in the country. Given the difficulty of predicting turnout and the resilience of Obama's coalition, it would be unwise to assert that either side has an especially clear advantage, at least for now. My prediction: the Washington Post will wind up moving North Carolina back into the toss-up column if the national polls continue to show a close race with a slight Obama edge.

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