People, ideas, and discoveries that impact North Carolina and the world

November 2008

How Did NC Become an Electoral Battleground?

By Matt Shipman

Could North Carolina be the key to victory for the 2008 presidential election? The answer depends on which candidate you ask, according to Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University. Democratic contender Barack Obama could win the election even if he doesn't carry North Carolina, he says. "On the other hand," Greene adds, Republican candidate John McCain "cannot afford to lose North Carolina." 

Repeated visits from presidential contenders and their running mates make it clear that the state is being hotly contested. But why has North Carolina garnered so much attention in this election? After all, a Democrat hasn't won the presidential vote here since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Republicans have run away with the vote since Bill Clinton narrowly lost the Old North State's electoral votes in 1992. 

 Our Expert Opinion

If you have been following media coverage of the 2008 elections, odds are that you've found yourself watching, reading or listening to the opinions of experts from NC State. From national television to local talk-radio, they seem to be cropping up everywhere.

Dr. Andrew Taylor, chair of the political science department, has been sought out for his expert input by a slew of reporters from outlets including the Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Bloomberg and the Associated Press, to name a few. In fact, he'll be speaking on National Public Radio's State of Things program this week.

Dr. Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science, has also done his part to shed some light on the election process. Greene was interviewed on CBS' The Early Show, and his name has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Politico, Reuters, The Times (UK), the State of Things, and other outlets.

But these are only two of the many NC State experts who have appeared in media outlets from around the state, the country and the world. A partial list of other faculty members who have been featured in election news articles includes: Dr. Richard C. Kearney, director of the School of Public and International Affairs; Dr. Michael Cobb, associate professor of political science; Dr. Craig A. Smith, professor of communication; and Dr. Jason Bivins, associate head of the Department of Philosophy and Religion.

With the world's eyes on this year's election, these experts have helped raise NC State's profile on a global stage.

But now the reliably red state is turning purple, and "the outcome of the presidential race in North Carolina is uncertain," according to NC State Political Science Department chair Andrew Taylor. Part of this change can be explained by a national trend away from the Republican Party tied to dissatisfaction with the Bush presidency. And, Greene says, "the economy is helping Obama everywhere." But those national trends are only part of the picture.

The political picture in North Carolina is changing, in large part, because the population of North Carolina is changing. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated North Carolina's population at 8.85 million in 2006 – up over 10 percent in the six years since the census in 2000. A lot of that growth came in the form of white-collar professionals who came to the state to take jobs in our booming tech, research and financial sectors. This population growth includes a "large influx of people from other parts of the country, who tend to be moderates or swing-voters," Taylor says. These changing demographics mean that the Republicans have to work harder to maintain their edge in the state.

Voter participation is another factor contributing to the competitiveness of this year's presidential race in North Carolina. For example, associate professor of political science Michael Cobb notes that this year could see an "all time record" in the number of eligible African-American voters who turn out at the polls, and that those voters are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Obama. Cobb says that experts expect more voters from all backgrounds to go to the polls, and "higher turnout in general benefits Democrats." Cobb explains that this is "because the increase in voters usually comes from the kinds of people who lean Democratic but are less likely to be registered and to vote."

But voter behavior is only part of the change drawing political attention to North Carolina. Presidential contenders are increasing their focus here because the state has more clout on the national stage than it did as recently as the 1980s. The same population boom that has helped alter the political landscape in North Carolina has also led to an increase in the number of electoral votes the state is allotted in the presidential election. While some states (such as Illinois and Pennsylvania) have been given fewer and fewer electoral votes since 1980, North Carolina has been on the rise. North Carolina now has 15 electoral votes, up from 13 in 1988. While that is fewer than Ohio's 20, it is more than some of the other traditional swing states such as Missouri, which has 11.

In fact, only eight states have more electoral votes than North Carolina (New Jersey and Georgia are tied with North Carolina at 15 votes). In an election where only 270 electoral votes are needed to win, the Tarheel State matters.