CHARLOTTE, N.C. National political conventions used to be about just two things: Nominate a presidential ticket, then sell it to the American electorate with a big TV show.
This year, there’s a third goal: Win North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes – and perhaps a second term in the White House – by using the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte as a campaign organizing tool.
So, for more than a year, those planning the Democrats’ 2012 gathering have been reaching out and energizing supporters in this crucial battleground state that President Barack Obama won four years ago by a mere 14,177 votes.
In 2008, “we didn’t really need to win North Carolina; this time, it’s much more important,” said Steve Kerrigan, CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee. “(But) you don’t win a state just by having a convention there; it’s how you use that convention to your benefit. You really have to talk to the people of that community, engage them, make them feel like they’re part of it.”
That strategy, pioneered at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, will culminate Thursday in Charlotte. That’s when tens of thousands of North Carolina voters will crowd into Bank of America Stadium to witness the president’s acceptance speech – a spectacle traditionally held in a convention hall filled only with delegates.
The public also was invited to preview a made-over Time Warner Cable Arena – they may have noticed that North Carolina delegates were assigned some of the choicest seats – and to partake of CarolinaFest, a Labor Day celebration Democratic organizers made time for by shortening the actual convention by a day.
By getting voters to sign up for convention-related events, they are also collecting data they can use in the fall to recruit volunteers, pitch possible donors, and swell turnout on Election Day.
Democrats also hope involving everyday North Carolinians in this convention will rekindle some of the excitement that propelled Obama to victory here four years ago.
“I think having the convention here does rev people up and will get them out to vote,” said Jeff Martin, 49, a pet stylist from Lake Norman who waited in line last month for the chance to get a ticket – or “community credential” – into Bank of America Stadium.
Those lines were long all over the state as the Obama campaign used 12 field offices in Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Greenville and other cities as distribution centers.
To guarantee themselves admission Thursday, 6,000 North Carolinians signed up for the Obama N.C. campaign’s “9-3-1” program – volunteer for nine hours over three shifts, and you get one seat. That translated into 54,000 hours of registering people to vote and spreading the Obama message via telephone calls to North Carolina voters.
And if what happened four years ago inside Denver’s Mile High Stadium – site of Obama’s last acceptance speech – is any indication, look for voter registration drives Thursday outside Bank of America Stadium as well as phone banks and big group texting inside.
“Everybody inside who had a cellphone was asked to call or text somebody, sending out (pro-Obama) messages,” said Pat Waak, who chaired the Colorado Democratic Party in 2008. “The ripple effect was huge. Three or four times the 80,000 in the (stadium) were made to feel like they were part of it.”
N.C.’s changing demographics
That November, Obama carried swing-state Colorado 54 percent to 45 percent, breaking a Republican presidential winning streak there that had begun in 1996.
His 2008 win in North Carolina was even more of a milestone. Fueled by a record voter turnout from young people and African-Americans, especially in Charlotte, Obama became the first Democrat to carry the Tar Heel state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
But for all the Obama-mania that year, his margin of victory in North Carolina was minuscule: 0.3 percent.
And as they look ahead to the fall campaign, some national political analysts question whether President Obama can beat Republican Mitt Romney in a state with 9.6 percent unemployment – the fifth-highest rate in the country.
“From 30,000 feet, North Carolina was the closest state Obama carried. And hey, this is not 2008,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If he wins (North Carolina) at all, it’ll be a squeaker.”
Like Sabato, who directs an election-year “Crystal Ball,” The New York Times, The Washington Post and some other major media outlets have already begun coloring North Carolina light red on their electoral maps. Translation: “Leaning Romney.”
Still, most polls put the Obama-Romney race at dead-even – a CNN/Time magazine survey released last week showed the candidates only a percentage point apart. That was enough to get CNN to move the Tar Heel state from leaning Romney to tossup.
‘The state of consequence’
An Elon University/⊗Charlotte Observer poll released Sunday indicates Romney got a slight bump out of last week’s Republican convention. It puts him ahead 47 percent to 43 percent among likely voters – still close enough to call North Carolina a battleground. In fact, the Romney campaign, determined not to be surprised like John McCain was four years ago, lately has been treating North Carolina like a must-win state that could well decide the election.
“You are one of the states that are going to help determine the next president of the United States,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP star, told N.C. delegates to the Republican convention last week. “Good Americans all over the country are watching the state of consequence.”
Romney has visited twice recently. And his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan – a popular choice with N.C. conservatives – will make his third stop with a rally Monday at East Carolina University in Greenville.
Plus, the Romney campaign and its Super PAC allies have spent millions more than the Democrats on TV ads.
But the Obama campaign still thinks its superior on-the-ground efforts – 40-plus field offices and its convention as an organizing tool – make a repeat in North Carolina a good bet.
They also point to demographic trends that paint this long-time red state as purple today – and maybe trending blue in the future as groups that tend to favor Democrats grow at a faster rate than GOP-leaning parts of the population.
“It has become a critical (swing) state,” Kerrigan said. “And if you look at the numbers in the last Census, all the numbers are growing in the right direction for Democrats.”
In the last decade, for example, North Carolina added 1.5 million people – 61 percent of them nonwhite, said James Johnson, a demographer at UNC Chapel Hill.
A recent poll by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling found a stark difference in the preferences between long-time North Carolinians and relative newcomers.
According to the survey by the Democratic-leaning firm, Romney wins 54 percent to 41 percent among N.C. residents who have been in the state for more than 30 years. Obama is the winner, 58-37 percent, among those who have been here less than three decades.
And among North Carolina’s newest residents, those who have been here less than 10 years, Obama is the overwhelming choice, 66-27 percent, the PPP survey found.
One other number suggests North Carolina is not a typical swing state: It has a larger African-American population, at 22 percent, than any other 2012 battleground. That means Obama needs the support of only 36 percent or 37 percent of white voters to win North Carolina, said Tom Jensen, PPP director.
Looking at the jobless rate
Still, the one North Carolina number that may end up mattering most – the jobless rate – could doom Obama’s chances here.
Charlie Cook of the Washington-based Cook Political Report is among those predicting that Obama may eventually exit the state and shift to other battlegrounds that could prove to be easier electoral pickups.
“If you’re looking for a playing field of 10 or 11 (states), his chances are better in 10 other places than they are in North Carolina,” Cook said. “They’re going to have to make some choices: Is a dollar better spent in Ohio or in North Carolina?”
And count Sabato among those skeptical of the notion that having the convention in Charlotte will make a difference in November.
“Conventions are held months before,” he said. “I’m dubious of their long-term impact.”
As rebuttal, the Obama campaign points to 2008.
Going into that convention, Kerrigan said, Democratic presidential candidates had a batting average of 22-22 in states where they held conventions. In other words, the selection process traditionally had more to do with hotel capacity than carrying the host state.
That changed with Denver.
“The (Obama) campaign chose to use that convention as a real organizing tool and really focused their energies on making sure we maximized the benefit of being in a … swing state,” he said. “That, no doubt, helped us in Colorado.”
Helped? Sure, said Scott Adler, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, but it was not the thing that tipped the state into Obama’s column.
“Things were trending in their direction already,” Adler said. “He would have carried it anyway, … and by a pretty good margin.”
But Adler and Waak agreed that the Obama campaign did energize many Colorado voters by opening up the convention.
“They really made people feel that they had a personal connection to the campaign,” Waak said.
If the Charlotte organizers can duplicate that, some say the convention could yet make a difference in North Carolina, where most voters have already made up their minds about whom they want to see in the White House.
“It’s a coin toss right now,” said Michael Bitzer, a political professor at Catawba College. “If you can excite your base and turn out your voters, you win.”