President Obama greets a member of the crowd at his appearance at North Carolina… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais,…)
Reporting from Raleigh, N.C. — When Robert Gibbs, then a Barack Obama campaign aide, went to bed on election night in 2008 he knew his boss had won the presidency. But the first thing he did the next morning was check to see if Obama carried a state that was a major focus of the campaign: North Carolina.
Obama prevailed, winning by fewer than 14,000 votes to become the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Obama's campaign rode several advantages to break through: money, momentum and a compelling message.
Now he is an incumbent president saddled with a struggling economy. Unemployment here is 10.1%, a full point higher than the national average. A new poll showed Obama's approval rating in North Carolina at 43%.
"He won it by 14,000 votes, so any decline in the president's fortunes is going to put North Carolina in jeopardy.… His approval ratings are down in the state to the lowest levels in his tenure, and that will make it quite difficult for him to hold onto the state next year," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
Obama isn't giving up on North Carolina. If he rebounds here, at the minimum he'll force his Republican opponent to commit resources in a state the GOP has identified as a top target. Republicans see the economy as a major vulnerability for Obama in a state that has lost 142,000 jobs since he took office.
Democrats want to show they can preserve their foothold in the Republicans' Southern base. Troubling as it is for Obama to see his approval rating slip, he stacks up well against the competition. A survey this month by Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based Democratic polling company, showed him tied in North Carolina with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by one point.
"The truth is, if we're going to win national elections at a presidential level, we know how hard it is to do that if every state from Virginia through Texas and down to Florida is on the other side," said Gibbs, a former White House press secretary.
Obama visited North Carolina on Wednesday to tout his $447-billion jobs package. He spoke on the campus of North Carolina State in Raleigh, located in a populous county that turned out big for him in 2008. Though Obama offered a broad sales pitch for the bill, he zeroed in on how North Carolinians would benefit.
An average family in North Carolina would get a $1,300 tax break next year if his proposed payroll tax cut is approved, Obama said. (The average family's tax break nationwide would be $1,500, an increase from the $1,000 break enacted last year.) He projected the bill would create 19,000 construction jobs in the state, as money flows in to renovate bridges, roads and schools.
He urged the crowd to call members of Congress and get them to stop "worrying so much about their jobs and start worrying more about your jobs."
While Obama was there to talk jobs and an "American Jobs Act" banner was on display behind the lectern, the event had the feel of a campaign rally. Crowded into the basketball arena, the university band belted out tunes and cheerleaders stoked the crowd of 9,300.
For Obama to win North Carolina again, he must motivate young people to vote. Many still like him. Standing outside a grocery store in Raleigh, Alexis Lake, 27, a social worker, said: "There was a lot of stuff on his plate that he was handed. I've been happy with the progress I've seen thus far."
Laughing, she added: "I couldn't do a better job."
Obama also needs African Americans, who make up 22% of the state's registered voters, to view the next election as just as important as 2008.
It won't be easy. In the big counties that propelled Obama to victory three years ago, turnout plunged in the 2010 midterm elections. Mecklenburg is the state's largest county, and Obama won it with 62% of the vote. In the midterms, Mecklenburg's turnout was only 38%, down from 66% in '08.
A decline in turnout is expected when the presidency isn't up for grabs. But even Obama concedes that some of the excitement from 2008 is gone. So North Carolina will test the Obama field operation like few other states. Campaign offices are in place in Charlotte and Raleigh, and aides are signing up people who volunteered three years ago.
"It's winnable, but it's going to be hard work," said Karen Finney, a Democratic Party strategist. "And it's going to rely on a very solid ground game. High African American turnout will be critical."
Examining the state's population trends, researchers have reason to believe Democrats can enlarge their base, particularly among Latino voters.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, said that in Union County, Latinos make up 10% of the population but only 2% of registered voters. A strong increase in Latino voters might make a difference in a tight contest.
"There are clearly unregistered Latinos in this state that are more likely to be Democrats these days than Republicans. It's not a big pool, but it could be bigger than it is," Guillory said.