Barack Obama wasn't supposed to win North Carolina in 2008. In the seven previous presidential elections, the state's electoral votes went to the Republican. But on Election Day, he carried the state by 14,000 votes over John McCain, a narrow victory largely attributed to the campaign strategy that delivered his supporters to the polls in droves.
A superior ground game remains the legacy of Obama's 2008 presidential bid—and a key to his 2012 re-election. Four years ago, McCain placed his resources elsewhere, a key misstep, say political observers. It's not surprising, then, that Mitt Romney's campaign isn't making the same mistake.
With less than a week until Election Day, Romney campaign officials say their campaign has made more than 2 million "voter contacts"—engaging prospective voters via door-to-door canvassing, telephone calls and other outreach methods.
"Campaigns will sometimes mirror each other, and I think what you're seeing now is Republicans trying to compete in areas that Democrats have done well in traditionally," says David McLennan, professor of political science at William Peace University.
Whether that will ensure a victory for Romney in North Carolina remains an open question. But as difficult as it was for Obama to carry the state in 2008, an invigorated Republican ground game could make winning in 2012 even more challenging.
The "Mitt-mentum" is at the Republican Party's back, said Robin Hayes, chairman of the state GOP. Last Friday, Hayes and a coterie of party officials arrived at state Republican headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh to tell party workers how Romney, not Obama, is winning the ground war.
"It's because you—the volunteers and staff—are working," Hayes said.
The effort, Republican strategists say, appears to be taking hold. After months of running at a dead heat with Obama, last week Romney inched ahead in North Carolina by two points in multiple polling outlets.
In addition, initial reports indicate that Republicans have cast 31 percent of the 1.5 million ballots collected thus far into the early voting period. That's 18 points lower than the Democratic total, but early voting turnout for North Carolina Republicans is greater than the totals at this point in 2008, says state GOP spokesperson Rob Lockwood.
The Republican ground game was outmatched in 2008 because the party was complacent, political observers say. "There was a thought from McCain that North Carolina was the solid South—that North Carolina wasn't inclined to vote for a Democrat for president, much less an African-American one," says McLennan.
Yet Palmer Sugg, a Raleigh attorney and Republican strategist, suggests that the Democrats in 2008 were simply better equipped to build campaign infrastructure. "Some of it is that they were years ahead in having competitive primary races," Suggs says. "My sense of it is that the McCain campaign thought that the local GOP was going to handle it."
It didn't, of course. With record-high numbers of new voters, Obama carried both North Carolina and Virginia, two states long thought to be Republican strongholds.
After the election, former state GOP chairman Linda Daves announced that she would not seek re-election. Daves could not be reached for comment. But reports indicate that the state party's relationship with the McCain campaign was rocky. In the height of campaign season, a controversial ad linking local Democrats, including Gov. Beverly Perdue, to Obama, and by extension to controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, led to a dispute between the two factions.
If Republicans are more confident now, it's because the Romney campaign is "at the most basic level far more sophisticated than Republican presidential campaigns in North Carolina have been in the past," says McLennan.
As in previous presidential elections, the candidate's national party operates its local campaign offices with cooperation from the state affiliate. The campaign to elect Mitt Romney has 22 official outposts in North Carolina. The campaign to re-elect President Obama has established more than 50 offices throughout the state.
The disparity is also evident locally. In Wake County, the Romney campaign operates from two separate Raleigh locations. The GOP recently opened another outlet in Apex, but broad swaths of the county don't have a dedicated office.
The Obama campaign operates five offices scattered across Wake County from Fuquay-Varina to Knightdale.
As the campaigns shift from identifying likely voters to ensuring that they cast a ballot, that might seem like a glaring disadvantage for Romney. Not so, says McLennan. "You can't read too much into the difference in the numbers," McLennan says. "As for getting out the vote, it's nothing as special, perhaps, as the strategies that the Obama campaign has developed. But they [Romney] have boots on the ground in most areas of the state."
Rachel Adams, spokesperson for the coordinated Romney campaign NC Victory, did not respond to several requests by Indy Week to observe the campaign at work.
Republican volunteers from across the county are coordinating with Romney campaign staffers to knock on doors of likely voters and work phone banks, says Lockwood, the GOP spokesman. "We're focusing on voter contact, whereas they're focusing on brick and mortar," he says. He declined, however, to offer details of the campaign's strategy to increase voter turnout.
But the Republicans are working each day to turn out voters, says GOP strategist Dee Stewart. "In terms of volunteer calls, it's my sense that the Romney campaign has a slight advantage," he says. Paid staff and volunteers are "micro-targeting" groups of likely voters, adds McLennan.
Like the Democrats, Republicans are relying on party heavyweights to help gin up voter enthusiasm and turnout. Last Friday, Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, stood before an eager crowd of twenty- and thirty-somethings at Tyler's Tap Room in Raleigh at a rally for Pat McCory. The Republican slate of candidates has to prevail in North Carolina, Christie declared. "We have 11 days to be working to make it happen," he said.
New polls from Public Policy Polling and Elon University put Obama and Romney in a statistical dead heat. But when daylight briefly appeared between the two last week, multiple media outlets reported that Romney was transferring campaign resources to Ohio, a swing state. The campaign has not indicated whether it will reverse course and bring them back to North Carolina.
"This is a real challenge for Romney since he has almost no path to victory without Ohio, but also almost no path to victory without North Carolina," says McLennan.
North Carolina has 15 electoral votes, but New York Times elections blogger Nate Silver predicts that North Carolina has just a 0.5 percent chance of deciding the race's outcome.
Whatever the case, the Romney campaign may not be able to relax yet. "A good GOTV push can be worth up to 2 percent," says Sugg, "But no more than 2 percent."
Still, some Republican observers are unfazed. Even with all the resources expended by the Democrats in 2008, Obama still just barely won the state, says GOP strategist Stewart. "If Republicans have expended less resources to win North Carolina, it's because they have a lower bar to clear to win it."