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North Carolina Up for Grabs in 2012 as Voter Enthusiasm Wanes

October 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In 2008, North Carolina went blue for the first time since 1976, in large part due to a high turnout of African-American voters. But with enthusiasm ebbing over the down economy and unmet expectations among key voting blocs, turnout may be too unpredictable to know which way the state will swing in 2012. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The men at the top of the presidential tickets hunkered down again today for debate preparation, ahead of the big meeting tomorrow night.

But they also managed to break away briefly, President Obama for a visit to the Hoover Dam, and Gov. Romney out to buy lunch, a burrito. Meanwhile, their running mates made multiple stops in key states.

Vice President Biden told a crowd in Charlotte, N.C., that Mitt Romney would raise taxes on most Americans to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: How they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years. How in lord’s name can they justify raising their taxes with these tax cuts?

And, look, folks, we have seen this movie before. Massive tax cuts for the wealthy. Eliminating restrictions on Wall Street. Let the banks write their own rules.

We know where it ends. It ends in a catastrophe of the middle class and the great recession of 2008. Folks, we cannot go back to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican National Committee and the Romney campaign seized on Biden’s remark about the middle class. They called it a stunning admission that the president’s policies have been bad for the economy and the middle class.

But Biden, at his next stop, in Asheville, N.C., said what has buried the middle class is the result of policies that Romney and Ryan are supporting.

In Clinton, Iowa, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said a Romney administration would help more Americans find jobs.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R, Wis.: We have a jobs crisis in America. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a job creator in the White House?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PAUL RYAN: We can’t afford four more years. We need a real recovery. Take a look at just jobs. We lost 582,000 manufacturing jobs since the president took office. He’s offering a new tax increase on our job creators that will cost us 700,000 jobs. We’re offering real reforms.

GWEN IFILL: So, which candidate has the better plan to get the economy back on track?

That’s the key question in battleground states like North Carolina, which only months ago seemed out of reach for the Democrats this year. But it’s back in play again.

Jeffrey Brown traveled there to discover why.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, lead the way.

Twenty-six-year-old D’Juan Owens who served in the Marines and is now a professional mixed martial artist, usually takes on tougher opponents than your correspondent.

Ooh, yes, I see.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But this weekend on a break from training at the Cageside gym in Durham, he offered a few pointers.

D’JUAN OWENS, mixed martial artist: When I kick, I’m thinking about kicking through the person.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also addressed another form of combat, politics. Owens voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and will again. But he wonders whether his friends will turn out in full force this time.

D’JUAN OWENS: I remember, in 2008, I couldn’t get away from it, not that I wanted to. But it was like Facebook, calling — Every time somebody was talking to you, any time you would go somewhere, and you were speaking with your friends and family, it’s like, are you voting, are you voting? You got to. You got to vote for Obama. So, it was really, you know, big.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t feel like they’re as enthusiastic or as excited?

D’JUAN OWENS: No. People might have had unrealistic expectations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Expectations and enthusiasm could determine the outcome here.

Barack Obama’s victory here in North Carolina four years ago was the first by a Democrat since 1976. It was helped in large part by a huge turnout by African-Americans, a whopping 72 percent, well above the national average.

But his win here was his slimmest margin in the country, a mere 14,000 votes. It looks like he will have to do as well or better among blacks and other voters in this deeply divided state.

The task is made harder by the hit North Carolina took in the recession. Unemployment is 9.7 percent, fifth highest in the country. The rate for African-Americans is nearly double.

And the state has seen enormous change, demographically, with the reverse migration of blacks returning and an influx of Hispanics and other new residents, and economically.

UNC professor and longtime political reporter Ferrel Guillory says North Carolina is moving in two directions at once.

FERREL GUILLORY, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: The up escalator in this state is the economic diversification into higher-wage, higher-skill research and development, biotechnology.

The down escalator is the collapse of the traditional industries, of textiles, tobacco and furniture, and the elevation of the unemployment rate.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can see the dividing lines everywhere. In downtown Durham, where an old tobacco plant is now an upscale historic district, home to restaurants and businesses with an art center and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park across the way.

While some 80 miles away in more rural Rocky Mount, old textile plants and mills sit shuttered.

All this, says Guillory, plays into the state’s divided politics.

FERREL GUILLORY: Where the Republicans have gained in this state is particularly among blue-collar people and rural people that in the older South used to be Democrats.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Romney ads address the job losses directly.

NARRATOR: Here in North Carolina, we’re not better off under President Obama. His failed economic and trade policies with China have destroyed thousands of jobs.

JEFFREY BROWN: That message is a rallying cry to Mike Armstrong of Rocky Mount. Now retired, he hosts a weekly local TV show on politics and helped start a Tea Party branch here in 2010.

So, what do you think are the biggest issues here then in this campaign?

MIKE ARMSTRONG, North Carolina: Jobs, jobs and jobs. That would be your top three.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

MIKE ARMSTRONG: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s it?

MIKE ARMSTRONG: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So it’s a question of who can do the better job.

MIKE ARMSTRONG: Who can do the better job not creating jobs. We realize politicians don’t create jobs, but at least enhancing the environment that can create jobs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think there’s much enthusiasm?

MIKE ARMSTRONG: As a conservative, I am much more enthusiastic about Mitt Romney than I was John McCain. I thought John McCain was just an extension of George Bush. And we had had enough of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But polls show enthusiasm remains a question mark here for Mitt Romney and for the president, who also has to worry about criticism from his left.

People like Duke economics Professor William Darity, who cites the almost one in five blacks out of work here and says the president simply hasn’t done enough to help.

WILLIAM DARITY, Duke University: That’s pretty staggering, actually. I mean, we’re approaching the kinds of unemployment rates that existed in the United States at the height of the Great Depression in the African-American community in North Carolina.

JEFFREY BROWN: Darity has decided to sit out the presidential vote.

WILLIAM DARITY: I’m going to vote for the other offices that are on the ballot, but I’m just not going to cast a vote for the presidency.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not?

WILLIAM DARITY: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you feel OK about that?

WILLIAM DARITY: Well, I feel OK about it. My wife tells me I’m crazy.

OCTAVIA RAINEY, North Carolina: Fired up, ready to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: No doubt Octavia Rainey thinks he’s crazy too.

OCTAVIA RAINEY: So you have to vote for people who support our issues. You got it?

WOMAN: We’re already there.

JEFFREY BROWN: A community organizer working with a group called Democracy North Carolina, Rainey walks the streets for hours every weekend, even on this dreary wet Saturday, in her College Park neighborhood of Raleigh.

She knows things are bad here, but firmly believes the president is helping make them right.

OCTAVIA RAINEY: It’s just like being in a marriage. When you’re having problems in a marriage, you have to work at it. Change don’t come overnight. But you know what? If you are devoted and committed, change will come. And I do believe that the next four years will be even a bigger change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rainey sees African-Americans becoming more energized to vote, particularly as they hear such things as Newt Gingrich’s primary season talk of the food stamp president.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), former speaker of the House: And we think unconditional efforts by the best food stamp president in American history to maximize dependency is terrible for the future of this country.

OCTAVIA RAINEY: To me, it means black, Hispanic and poor, and that we’re lazy.

So, when I hear them saying that about President Obama, I take that very seriously because that is all negative. He is not the food stamp king. He is about helping people regardless. People need help.

JEFFREY BROWN: This summer, the National Urban League issued a study saying that if black voting patterns revert to 2004 levels, the president will lose North Carolina.

And the Obama campaign, taking that threat seriously, is paying particular attention to historically black colleges like North Carolina’s Central University.

Michelle Obama spoke there last month.

MICHELLE OBAMA, first lady: And if Barack wins North Carolina, we will be well on our way to putting Barack back in the White House for four more years.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: On Saturday, the campaign set up a tent amid the pregame drilling at the Viking Football Classic between Elizabeth City State and St Augustine, registering new voters and bringing in actress Jurnee Smollett of “Friday Night Lights” fame to mix with the crowd.

And 18-year-old Surri Petty was fired up by casting her first vote.

SURRI PETTY, North Carolina: Everybody is excited. Everybody’s really excited about getting Obama in for a second term.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, for Mitt Romney, this is perhaps even more a must-win state. He’s made numerous visits, and Republicans insist they won’t let things slip away again.

Rob Lockwood is communications director for the North Carolina GOP.

ROB LOCKWOOD, North Carolina Republican Party: Comparatively, from where we were in 2008 to where we are now, we have made 20 times the amount of phone calls, more than 100 times the amount of door knocks.

We have made over two million voter contacts already. That’s more than we did in all of 2008 in North Carolina. So, we’re doing a great job getting our message out.

JEFFREY BROWN: One final wild card here, the role that social issues might play.

In May, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed a ban on same-sex marriage. The very next day, President Obama announced that he supports gay marriage.

At Sunday morning services at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, Tonia Lea, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, told us the issue has her politically torn.

TONIA LEA, North Carolina: It’s a direct contradiction to what God says about that. And I was just — you know, it conflicts with my Christian beliefs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pastor Reginald Van Stephens, though, while deeply opposed to gay marriage, said his concerns about voting again for the president were dispelled in recent days.

MITT ROMNEY (R): There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.

PASTOR REGINALD VAN STEPHENS, White Rock Baptist Church: When Mr. Romney made the 47 percent comment, that made me shake my head and say, like a lot of Americans, when you tell Americans you are entitled and dependent on the government because of Social Security and Medicare, that shows a great deal of insensitivity.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Pastor Stephens also had a greater concern about missed opportunities.

PASTOR REGINALD VAN STEVENS: This shouldn’t be an election about voting against the other guy. This should be an election about voting for the person who is going to benefit your community.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re not seeing that from either party?

PASTOR REGINALD VAN STEVENS: Neither party. Neither party.

JEFFREY BROWN: For two parties intending to stir enthusiasm in the weeks before the vote, that might well be a sobering message indeed.

GWEN IFILL: You can find more on Jeff’s trip to North Carolina, including his foray into mixed martial arts, on our website. Watch his newsroom conversation with political editor Christina Bellantoni, plus a behind-the-scenes slide show, on our Politics page.