Swing States: North Carolina Still Up For Grabs

In the hotly contested battleground state of North Carolina, Election Day arrives early. Polls open for early voting starting this Thursday in a state that President Obama won by just four-tenths of a percentage point back in 2008. Until then, the state hadn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1976. Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin talks with John Frank, a political writer for the Raleigh-based News & Observer.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the hotly contested battleground state of North Carolina, Election Day arrives early. Polls open for early voting starting this Thursday in a state that President Obama won by just four-tenths of a percentage point back in 2008. Until then, the state had not voted for a Democrat for president since 1976.

Our series of conversations about swing states continues this week with John Frank. He's a political reporter for the News & Observer newspaper based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome to the program, John.

JOHN FRANK: Thank you.

MARTIN: So early voting helped give President Obama the edge over John McCain in North Carolina. Which party has the more sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort this time around?

FRANK: So far, Republicans are winning the absentee ballot chase. But that's not a surprise. They're a little better at the absentee ballots than Democrats. But right now, they've got a two-to-one lead over Democrats. It roughly matches their 2008 effort at this point. And as you said, with early voting starting Thursday, the equation will change. The Obama operation in general never really left North Carolina after 2008, so they have the organizing advantage.

But it will be closer this year, with outside groups, conservative groups helping Republicans. The GOP says it's not going to be asleep at the wheel like it was in 2008.

MARTIN: OK, let's break down a little bit of the vote in North Carolina. The state has the largest percentage of black voters of any of the swing states. They turned out overwhelmingly for President Obama four years ago. How would you characterize President Obama's support among African-American voters now?

FRANK: Among the voters I've talked to recently, Obama remains pretty strong. The question is how strong? Black voters are 22 percent of the state's population, the highest of the swing states, as you know. Virginia is the next closest. So the latest polls here, though they were taken before the first debate, shows blacks supporting Obama 92 percent and Romney gets 7 percent, with just 1 percent undecided.

And these numbers just about mirror the polls before the 2008 election. So the Obama campaign is not taking black voters for granted. The question is whether Obama support for gay marriage hurts him in this kind of traditionally conservative, religious community - morally conservative that is.

MARTIN: Let's talk about that. President Obama came out recently and said he personally supports gay marriage. But in North Carolina, voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. This happened back in the May primary. Obviously, a contentious issue and this was a really prominent issue among the African-American population in your state.

FRANK: Sure, we're seeing some minor effects linger from May. Not all black voters agree with Obama's new stance but, as I talk to them, many of them say that it won't significantly affect their choice. But the amendment did win here by 60 percent. And to be honest, the biggest effect is the fact the referendum isn't on the November ballot. If it was, this would be a totally different election up and down the ticket.

But the pro-amendment organization that was successful in May is trying to translate it's momentum into the fall election. It's raising money, it's focusing on regrouping its conservative Christian base to turn out the polls. So it's not as large of a campaign as we saw in May, but it could help push the conservative religious voters who stayed home in '08 to the polls this year.

MARTIN: What are the other issues, John, that are really animating the electorate in North Carolina this year?

FRANK: You'll find a lot of issues mirror other swing states. The economy is at the top of the list here. Our 9.7 percent unemployment rate is among the highest for swing states. So our voters are talking jobs and all candidates for all positions, you know, down to the insurance commissioner (unintelligible) are talking jobs and the economy. And they're looking for solutions with voters saying to varying degrees that the presidential candidates don't really seem to have a short-term jobs plan right now. They're kind of frustrated by the political rhetoric that they're being bombarded with.

MARTIN: As you pointed out earlier, the Obama campaign never really packed up and left North Carolina after 2008. So they've got a good ground game there. Obviously, the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte this year. But talk about how Republicans in North Carolina have or have not embraced Mitt Romney. Is there enthusiasm on that side of things?

FRANK: The enthusiasm has grown in recent days since that first debate. But from my conversations, it's clear the Republicans here are more motivated to oppose President Obama and less enamored with Governor Romney. But more than anything, the Republicans want to win.

But a lot of the GOP voters I spoke with before the debate were quite frustrated that his campaign wasn't catching fire, and felt very doomed by that 47 percent remark. As enthusiasm is growing, the campaign is feeling some of that energy. Just the other weekend, they had tens of thousands of voter contacts. They're out hitting the ground much in the way that we saw Obama do in 2008. So they're stepping up their game all around to try to make this a very close election.

MARTIN: John Frank is a political reporter for the News & Observer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Thanks so much, John.

FRANK: Thank you for having me.

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