In a recent posting on his New York Times blog fivethirtyeight, Nate Silver differentiates between “swing states,” which conventional wisdom has described North Carolina as being, and “elastic states,” which Silver believes is a better descriptor.
In defining an elastic state, Silver believes that there are many swing voters within the state, “that is, voters who could plausibly vote for either party’s candidate” and who are most likely an independent voter. In contrast, Silver believes that North Carolina is more likely an inelastic state.
He reasons that North Carolina voters who make up both the Democratic and Republican base coalitions are so close that there aren’t enough persuadable voters in the state, in comparison to other states. Instead, Silver argues, North Carolina is “the kind of place where elections mostly boil down to turnout, and Mr. Obama — with his considerably stronger ground game—was able to edge out a win there in 2008.” He classifies the Tar Heel state, therefore, as a “turnout-battle swing state.”
Silver doesn’t offer any specific evidence to support his claim, so I decided to take a look at exactly where the Obama campaign was able to generate this ground game approach to making North Carolina a swing state. Taking each county’s results, I compared the votes generated for the Democratic presidential candidate and compared 2004 to 2008 to see where Obama was able to generate the ground game operation.
As a reminder, Bush won North Carolina by over 435,000 votes in 2004, while Obama won the state by 14,000 votes in 2008.
Obama was able to increase Kerry’s votes by over 50 percent in 13 counties. For example, in Union County, one of Charlotte’s suburban counties, Kerry received a little under 18,000 votes. Four years later, Obama pulled in a little over 31,000 votes in Union, increasing the Democratic presidential vote by 74 percent (for all 100 counties and the percentage increase, interested folks can download the datasheet).
Now, that huge of an increase doesn’t mean that Obama carried Union — he actually lost the county 36 percent to McCain’s 63 percent. In fact, in those 13 counties that saw the 50 percent increase in Democratic presidential votes, Obama only won five of those counties: Mecklenburg, Vance, Pitt, Cumberland, and Hoke (see the below map).
But since all 15 electoral votes are awarded to whomever gets one more vote than the second-place finisher in North Carolina, the impressive aspect of Obama’s 2008 ground game is that, on average, he increased the 2004 Democratic presidential votes in the counties by nearly 32 percent. McCain, in comparison, only saw an average 11 percent increase over what Bush garnered. What this increased voter mobilization meant was that 14 counties that had voted for Bush flipped to the Obama win column, and cut the 435,000 vote surplus for the GOP down to a razor’s edge 14,000 margin for Obama.
Along with Cumberland County, those counties that flipped from Bush to Obama included Wake (Raleigh), Buncombe (Asheville), Forsyth (Winston-Salem), Chatham, Pitt, Granville, Wilson, Martin, Jackson, Watauga, Caswell, Blanden, and Hyde.
No North Carolina counties flipped from having voted for John Kerry in 2004 to John McCain in 2008.
While we are less than five months out from casting early votes for the general election, it is never too early to use the tired clichés of “it all depends on who shows up” and “turnout matters,” especially in a state like North Carolina.