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North Carolina isn't Ohio, and that's why Romney may win it

"You are going to vote your hopes rather than your fears, North Carolina," former President Bill Clinton told a Raleigh audience of about 4,000 Sunday night.
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum campaigns for Mitt Romney in Charlotte last month. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum campaigns for Mitt Romney in Charlotte last month.

"You are going to vote your hopes rather than your fears, North Carolina," former President Bill Clinton told a Raleigh audience of about 4,000 Sunday night. Four years ago, the Obama campaign put that into the presidential win column for the first time since 1976, and they are trying to keep hope alive that it will again decide in their favor this year.

Contrary to what CNN analyst Paul Begala claimed a couple weeks ago, the Obama campaign has not given up on North Carolina. Nor should they, despite challenger Mitt Romney's three-point lead in the Real Clear Politics polling average for that state. A new Public Policy Polling look at the state shows the president tied with Romney, and up by nine points among those who have cast their ballot early. The overall early voting count in the state has increased since 2008.

While President Obama hasn't been to the state since the Democratic National Convention in September, Clinton's visit was preceded by a stop from Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Dr. Jill Biden, on Friday. On Monday first lady Michelle Obama, joined by superstar singer Mariah Carey, hosted an airport rally in Charlotte, N.C., alluding to the more than 14,000-vote margin by which her husband won the state four years ago:

The 14,000 vote margin, she said, worked out to five votes per precinct. She urged supporters to keep that in mind as they rally friends to the polls. “I want you to remind them of those five votes,” she said. “The difference in this election can be one vote in your neighborhood. … So our job is to reach out and get to that one person.”

Republicans in North Carolina have been reportedly obsessing over that 14,000 number, and believe they've registered enough GOP voters to eclipse it. But in the Charlotte Observer, Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, makes an important observation:

[Guillory] said the center of the state’s political gravity has shifted to the metropolitan areas, particularly the Charlotte metro area and the Research Triangle Park. So, he said, it makes sense that the Obama campaign’s last key appearances before Election Day have been in those areas.“What’s fascinating is the Obama campaign keeps fighting for North Carolina,” Guillory said. “The Obama campaign just doesn’t quit here.”

So can a mobilization through early voting of North Carolina's urban centers, home to countless working-class voters, carry the Democrats to victory? If you're an Obama supporter, there are reasons to fear that won't happen—one of which is that North Carolina, for all of its virtues, isn't Ohio.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave the president a 23% chance of capturing the state again. Guillory's analysis may also reflect the fact that what is driving President Obama's success with a particular demographic in states like Ohio isn't really an option in North Carolina.

In Ohio, President Obama is enjoying higher-than-average success among working-class white men and women, a substantial number of whom have benefited from the auto bailout and from a better-than-average state economy. Molly Ball, in The Atlantic, mentions another element which has been overlooked: unions. Quoting the AFL-CIO's political director, cited in her article:

"A year ago, all the talk was Obama could never win with high unemployment...The early conventional wisdom went further, writing off working class voters, asserting that the only path available to President Obama was upscale voters in states like North Carolina."

North Carolina, whether its voters are upscale or not, is a right-to-work state. The Obama campaign upset unions when it chose North Carolina as a location for the September convention, and it's not as if it did them any good in the state;

Romney has consistently led in North Carolina since that convention, with only a brief blip before the first presidential debate sent the Republican's polling average back up. And while the convention hubbub briefly turned attention to the issue of anti-union laws in North Carolina, it wasn't anything like the controversy ginned up by recent events in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, as Evan McMorris-Santoro noted Sunday in Talking Points Memo:

Labor groups say their internal polling shows labor support for President Obama in the all-important battleground state of Ohio and the electoral vote cash cow of Wisconsin is as high or higher than it was in 2008. They attribute the numbers to residual fallout from the 2011 SB 5 collective bargaining fight in Ohio and the Wisconsin battle between labor unions and Gov. Scott Walker.

There's also the question of whether African-Americans in North Carolina will be as motivated to carry the president to victory a second time around—partially due to the president's new stance on same-sex marriage, which he announced a day after the state voted to constitutionally ban gay marriage. Also, per a New York Times report in October, some of those voters may believe 2008 was enough:

By chance, a volunteer for the Obama campaign stopped Mr. Hady outside of the Wake County Courthouse here recently and asked him if he was prepared to vote. Mr. Hady said no, and went on to explain: “I can say I was definitely more excited to vote for Obama last time. I guess part of it is that history has already been made.”

Perhaps one Democratic victory in 36 years of presidential elections is all North Carolinians can muster. We'll find out today. Polls close at 7:30 p.m. ET.