There are 83 days until the election, and we're on the brink of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, with the attendant campaign cash that such high-stakes races bring.
Since the Citizens United decision, which allows nearly unlimited amounts of money to flow into pumping up or taking down a candidate, it has become more difficult to predict election results. Is North Carolina in play? Or as Nate Silver of The New York Times recently wrote, does it matter in the electoral math?
Last week, a major story in the online magazine Real Clear Politics appeared to buy into the Romney camp's insistence that North Carolina is reverting to its conservative roots. Two days later, Public Policy Polling released a survey showing President Obama, who was down several points to John McCain at this point in the 2008 cycle, up by three points over Romney.
Conventional wisdom says that this is the time—post-election and post-Olympics—that Americans start paying attention to the presidential election. Yet with the country and the state highly polarized, evidence is mounting that there are very few persuadable voters left.
The undecided middle is dwindling. Polls are poor predictors of how many of those polarized voters—after months of a mostly negative ad onslaught—will make it to the polls.
More than most states, the electorate of North Carolina is in flux, mainly due to migration. In 2008, PPP examined the state's changing voter demographics and noted interesting trends. The percentage of registered Democrats is decreasing, while the number of reliable Democratic votes is increasing.
"Somewhat counter-intuitively," the report says, "especially to those who are not students of North Carolina politics, the new residents who are much more likely to vote Democratic are also much less likely to identify themselves with the Democratic Party."
Following the rout of 2010, GOP strategists maintained that Obama's win in North Carolina was an anomaly driven by unusually high turnout. They pointed to a drop in Democratic registrations.
But as the PPP study points out, the people moving here, even independents, are proving to be more reliable Democratic voters than the natives. Born and bred Tar Heels came of age in what was historically a one-party state; if you wanted a say in legislative or county commissioner races, you registered as a Democrat so you could vote in the primary.
That same dynamic identified in 2008 is at play this year. The recent PPP poll on the presidential race notes that Obama and Romney are tied 47-47 for the native vote. The president's lead can be attributed to an edge among non-native voters, including a 66-to-27-percent lead among those who've been here less than 10 years.
Silver may be right in that North Carolina may not be essential to Obama's electoral vote strategy, but it is dreadfully important to his rival.
This was demonstrated by the fact that the newly minted Romney and Ryan team sat down for their first major interview at a furniture factory in High Point, a place with near-perfect optics for their American renewal theme.
A North Carolina factory? What could be a better setting for a leader in the offshoring of American jobs? Or the U.S. House's chief proponent of social Darwinism? The only better setting would be a closed factory, which this state has in abundance.
Romney is relying on voters in struggling manufacturing towns and areas rich in active-duty soldiers and veterans to vote against their interests. One of Romney's hopes is to convince North Carolina voters to blame Obama for the failure of the state's manufacturing sector. However, his logic overlooks the fact that globalization and corporate thirst for cheap labor, exemplified by the likes of Bain Capital, dismantled the factories.
But that's not the most outrageous leap of faith Romney is asking us to make. He claims that Obama is preparing to gut the military and, by extension, North Carolina's military-heavy economy, by prohibiting Congress to squirm out of a budget deal brokered during the heat of a manufactured crisis over the national debt.
In the governor's race, Pat McCrory is taking a similar rhetorical route. He's not preaching renewal but outright salvation from a succession of unpopular Democrats.
McCrory leads in the polls. However, with a tight presidential race and Obama's 2008 voting infrastructure in place, Walter Dalton stands to benefit from sharing the stage with the president and having a "D" next to his name.
A look at the straight-ticket voting in the last presidential election illustrates the built-in cushion a Democratic candidate enjoys with a heavy turnout. In 2008, McCrory drew 881,856 straight-ticket votes, compared with Beverly Perdue's 1,283,486.
When the ballots were tallied, Perdue received 2,146,189 votes to McCrory's 2,001,168. The Libertarian candidate, Michael Munger, won 121,584, insufficient to qualify as a spoiler.
The margins are significant. Perdue received nearly 60 percent of the votes required to win via a straight-party vote, compared with 44 percent of the GOP total.
If the Democrats maintain that straight-party margin, the GOP needs a huge ground game to win statewide. If turnout reaches 2008 levels, however, a huge ground game is moot. At some point, probably when turnout reaches 70 percent, the GOP will run out of voters, and the numbers break for Democratic candidates.
While a Libertarian didn't spoil the last governor's race, recent polling numbers for that party's Barbara Howe show she is drawing 7 percent of the vote, slightly more than Munger had at this time in 2008.
McCrory's path to victory is to paint Dalton as part of the Democratic establishment that brought us Mike Easley, Jim Black and Perdue—while portraying himself as an agent of change. McCrory also has to convince people he won't rubberstamp legislation advanced by the hugely unpopular General Assembly.
Dalton can win if he plays small ball, raising questions about McCrory's refusal to release his tax returns or to discuss his role with Duke Energy. More important, Dalton must convinces voters wary about the education budget and social issues that McCrory would indeed be a puppet of the extremists in the Legislature.
Since a large number of potential voters—45 percent in the most recent PPP poll—haven't formed an opinion on Dalton, he has an opportunity to define himself. But he'll have to do it fast before the overwhelming amount of cash aligned on McCrory's behalf does it for him.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Don't count your chickens."