Spurred by heavy registration in big urban counties – particularly among young voters and African Americans – N.C. voter rolls have swollen by more than 600,000 this year to a record 6 million.
“Voter registration has eclipsed all records, no doubt about it,” says state elections director Gary Bartlett.
The apparent beneficiaries: Democrats. Analysts say the changes have helped Democrat Barack Obama make the state an unexpected battleground.
“Clearly, the advantage goes to Obama,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill.
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Republican John McCain's campaign says it's not worried about North Carolina, a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. They note that even with the Democratic registration surge, Democrats' relative registration edge is little changed since 2004.
While the surge in part reflects the state's growth, the Obama campaign has mounted aggressive registration efforts. In Mecklenburg County, for example, elections officials say the campaign brings in more than 2,100 new registration forms a week.
Of North Carolina's 603,000 new voters this year, 48 percent are Democrats and 21 percent Republicans. Nearly a third are independents.
By comparison, in 2004, Democrats made up 39 percent of new voters and Republicans, 34 percent.
Among the trends:
African Americans, who make up about 22 percent of the state's population, account for more than 30 percent of new voters.
Five counties – Mecklenburg, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford and Wake – account for more than a third of all new registrations.
Nearly 210,000 new voters are 18 to 24. Only one in five registered Republican.
New registrations appear to be one reason Obama has moved into a virtual tie with McCain in recent N.C. polls.
Republicans say new numbers won't change the outcome.
“Democrats have a registration advantage over Republicans in North Carolina, just like they did in 2004,” says McCain spokesman Mario Diaz. “But Sen. McCain's appeal to independents and Democrats, especially the conservative Democrats in the southeast part of the state, will ensure North Carolina stays red on Nov. 4.”
McCain's campaign has 14 N.C. offices and more than 20 paid staffers. Obama has 34 N.C. offices and a paid staff of about 150.
He has dramatically outspent McCain here, pouring more than $2.5 million into TV ads, including $750,000 in the Charlotte market since August. His visit Saturday to Greensboro was his second to the state in a week. Over the weekend, Obama volunteers knocked on 107,000 N.C. doors.
McCain has announced no plans to come to the state.
NBC political analyst Chuck Todd says the flood of new voters and a renewed focus on the economy put the state in play.
“When you can change an electorate – and (Obama) can do that with African Americans, with young voters and now the economic issue – it could be tough on McCain, very tough,” he says.
Todd says the Obama campaign believes North Carolina has the potential to be this year's Ohio – that is, a critical swing state.
Republican strategist Carter Wrenn of Raleigh says what worries him aren't the registration numbers themselves but what they could represent.
“If people are registering at that rate for the Democrats, you've got to feel that the swing voters and independent voters are probably tending toward the Democrats, too,” he says. “That's doggone frightening.”