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Strategists: Obama's chances in N.C. slim

Democrats historically face challenges here, but some say economy, minority voters could turn the tide this time.

By Mark Johnson

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama faces enormous obstacles to win North Carolina in November's election, according to an Observer analysis of voter registration, past primary and election results and current polls.

Strategists from both parties agree his chances to win North Carolina fall between slim and none.

Still, his tactics and primary win against a well-financed and famous opponent have fueled N.C. Democrats' hope of a presidential victory here for the first time since Jimmy Carter won in 1976.

And the same campaign consultants caution that the tumbling economy and a perfect alignment of other influences could anger voters that traditionally vote Republican.

“Logic's out the window and it's ... an emotional election,” said Republican strategist Paul Shumaker.

Right now Obama faces mountain-sized challenges in North Carolina to beat U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. Obama would have to:

Make sure blacks make up at least as large a share, or larger, of Election Day voters as they do of registered voters overall. Historically, that has not happened.

Capture a larger share of the white vote than the last Democratic presidential candidate.

Get the same percentage – 36 percent – of white voters in the general election as he did in the Democratic primary. A majority of white voters are Republican.

The Obama campaign has said he can compete in states beyond the usual battlegrounds of Ohio, Florida and the like. His team claims the history-making candidate with a bulging campaign bank account can challenge Republicans in states that Democrats typically cede to the GOP.

Obama picked North Carolina for one of his first major rallies and one of his first television ad campaigns as a general election candidate. That's an encouraging turn for N.C. Democrats accustomed to their presidential candidates forfeiting the state from the start.

Crunching the numbers

Voting data is more sobering.

Start with a best-case scenario in which Obama could win:

Blacks in North Carolina account for 20.7 percent of registered voters as of last month. Most are Democrats.

Black voters don't automatically support a black candidate, but Obama drew 91 percent of the black vote in the Democratic primary. Black voters also overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic presidential candidate in the general election.

Presume Obama is able to elevate black turnout beyond blacks' current share of registered voters to 25 percent of voters on Election Day, and that he secures 95 percent of those black votes. That essentially requires him to win all black Democrats and all black Independents.

Using that math, he starts out with 23.8 percent of the overall vote on Election Day.

Now look at the white vote.

Veteran Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said he sets a benchmark that a Democratic candidate has to get 41 percent of the white vote, combined with black votes, to win. He's run campaigns for former Gov. Jim Hunt and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' nominee in 2004, could have won with a bit lower percentage of North Carolina's white vote but got 27 percent, according to exit polls.

He lost the state, 56 percent to 44 percent.

A survey this week by Democratic pollsters Public Policy Polling showed Obama with 32 percent of the white vote. In the Democratic primary in May, he received 36 percent of white votes.

“If he can't get 40 percent of the white vote when it's all Democrats, it's hard to see how he does it when a majority of the white vote is Republican,” said Tom Jensen, of Public Policy Polling.

Republicans outnumbered Democrats among white registered voters in December by 1.8 million to 1.5 million.

Obama supporters say he will drive an unprecedented turnout among black voters that even optimistic calculations don't fully consider.

North Carolina has some experience with that phenomenon.

Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt rallied black voters when he ran against U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990. Like many southern states, though, there was a corresponding shift among whites, according to both Republican and Democratic strategists. Gantt won urban counties and Helms won in rural areas, as expected. Helms' margins in rural counties, though, were larger than anticipated, said Carter Wrenn, who ran Helms' campaign that year.

“There were a lot of white rural voters who were Democrats who had a problem voting for an African-American candidate,” Wrenn said.

North Carolina's population has changed dramatically since 1990 with northeasterners, Midwesterners and Hispanics flowing in.

“Yes, the state is changing. Yes, he has energized new voters,” said Pearce, the Democratic strategist. “Yes, he will drive African American turnout, but there still just aren't enough votes.

“His problem is still among white voters.”

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama faces enormous obstacles to win North Carolina in November's election, according to an Observer analysis of voter registration, past primary and election results and current polls.

Strategists from both parties agree his chances to win North Carolina fall between slim and none.

Still, his tactics and primary win against a well-financed and famous opponent have fueled N.C. Democrats' hope of a presidential victory here for the first time since Jimmy Carter won in 1976.

And the same campaign consultants caution that the tumbling economy and a perfect alignment of other influences could anger voters that traditionally vote Republican.

“Logic's out the window and it's ... an emotional election,” said Republican strategist Paul Shumaker.

Right now Obama faces mountain-sized challenges in North Carolina to beat U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. Obama would have to:

Make sure blacks make up at least as large a share, or larger, of Election Day voters as they do of registered voters overall. Historically, that has not happened.

Capture a larger share of the white vote than the last Democratic presidential candidate.

Get the same percentage – 36 percent – of white voters in the general election as he did in the Democratic primary. A majority of white voters are Republican.

The Obama campaign has said he can compete in states beyond the usual battlegrounds of Ohio, Florida and the like. His team claims the history-making candidate with a bulging campaign bank account can challenge Republicans in states that Democrats typically cede to the GOP.

Obama picked North Carolina for one of his first major rallies and one of his first television ad campaigns as a general election candidate. That's an encouraging turn for N.C. Democrats accustomed to their presidential candidates forfeiting the state from the start.

Crunching the numbers

Voting data is more sobering.

Start with a best-case scenario in which Obama could win:

Blacks in North Carolina account for 20.7 percent of registered voters as of last month. Most are Democrats.

Black voters don't automatically support a black candidate, but Obama drew 91 percent of the black vote in the Democratic primary. Black voters also overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic presidential candidate in the general election.

Presume Obama is able to elevate black turnout beyond blacks' current share of registered voters to 25 percent of voters on Election Day, and that he secures 95 percent of those black votes. That essentially requires him to win all black Democrats and all black Independents.

Using that math, he starts out with 23.8 percent of the overall vote on Election Day.

Now look at the white vote.

Veteran Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said he sets a benchmark that a Democratic candidate has to get 41 percent of the white vote, combined with black votes, to win. He's run campaigns for former Gov. Jim Hunt and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' nominee in 2004, could have won with a bit lower percentage of North Carolina's white vote but got 27 percent, according to exit polls.

He lost the state, 56 percent to 44 percent.

A survey this week by Democratic pollsters Public Policy Polling showed Obama with 32 percent of the white vote. In the Democratic primary in May, he received 36 percent of white votes.

“If he can't get 40 percent of the white vote when it's all Democrats, it's hard to see how he does it when a majority of the white vote is Republican,” said Tom Jensen, of Public Policy Polling.

Republicans outnumbered Democrats among white registered voters in December by 1.8 million to 1.5 million.

Obama supporters say he will drive an unprecedented turnout among black voters that even optimistic calculations don't fully consider.

North Carolina has some experience with that phenomenon.

Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt rallied black voters when he ran against U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990. Like many southern states, though, there was a corresponding shift among whites, according to both Republican and Democratic strategists. Gantt won urban counties and Helms won in rural areas, as expected. Helms' margins in rural counties, though, were larger than anticipated, said Carter Wrenn, who ran Helms' campaign that year.

“There were a lot of white rural voters who were Democrats who had a problem voting for an African-American candidate,” Wrenn said.

North Carolina's population has changed dramatically since 1990 with northeasterners, Midwesterners and Hispanics flowing in.

“Yes, the state is changing. Yes, he has energized new voters,” said Pearce, the Democratic strategist. “Yes, he will drive African American turnout, but there still just aren't enough votes.

“His problem is still among white voters.”

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Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email local@charlotteobserver.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

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