The new Elon University poll out today of likely North Carolina voters, which put Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at 45 percent each, is generating another round of commentary about the possibility of a Tar Heel State surprise for Republicans who are counting on its 15 electoral votes as part of Romney’s path to 270.
I’ll say first that North Carolina politics, like that of so many other states, cannot easily be pegged as consistently Red or Blue. From 1980 through 2004, N.C. voted Republican for president. Only in 1992 was the outcome even briefly in doubt. But during most of that period, N.C. voters gave Democrats control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature, plus the majority of the congressional delegation and the vast majority of local offices. In 2008, the state went for Obama, albeit by a scant 14,000 votes, and the governor’s office stayed in Democratic hands, albeit narrowly. Starting in 2009, however, things began to go haywire for Democrats here. After success in local elections in 2009, Republicans took control of both legislative chambers in 2010 for the first time since the 19th century. Next week, the GOP will win its first governor’s race since 1988 — and by a huge margin. The party will also pick up at least three and possibly four congressional seats, creating either a 9–4 or 10–3 Republican majority in the delegation.
All that having been said, the notion that President Obama could win North Carolina again was not fanciful. Both sides have taken it seriously over the past year, and invested time and money accordingly. There are voters — I have met some — who are planning to vote to reelect Obama while giving Republicans full control of state government for the first time since Reconstruction. Here’s a hint: Their diphthongs don’t last as long as mine do. Many of them arrived in the state from the Northeast or Midwest within the last ten years. Split-ticket voters always defy easy ideological description, and these have brought voting patterns to North Carolina that we aren’t used to seeing.
I happen to think that Romney will still win the state, but not by a huge margin. For the president to be stuck at 45 percent in today’s Elon poll is actually a bad sign for him — Elon has historically polled all adults, rather than likely voters, and probably used a loose screen for this sample that included folks unlikely to cast ballots. Other polls, by both left-leaning and right-leaning organizations, show results ranging from a 48-48 tie to an eight-point Romney edge. I suspect we’re looking at something in-between, three to four points. But would a closer result shock me? No.