Last Thursday, Obama got great news from Indiana, where Selzer & Co found him with a narrow lead. Today, the world as we know it changed in yet another red state: Obama has his first lead in North Carolina.
Rasmussen’s latest poll has the Democrat pulling ahead 49% to 47%, a lead well within the margin of error but a 5% shift towards Obama in one week. And Rasmussen’s poll does not come alone: earlier this week, PPP and Civitas released two polls that had the candidates tied. Those were only the second and third surveys ever to find such a result (the first came in an April Rasmussen poll). Also, Marc Ambinder reports - with no detail - that he has seen a private poll with Obama leading, further confirming that Rasmussen’s poll is not an outlier.
Obama’s North Carolina numbers had been stunningly strong in the Tar Heel state since the beginning of the year, but the state’s long history of voting Republican in national elections made it unlikely that Obama could keep it competitive all the way to Election Day. But the campaign then spent millions registering voters, airing ads and building an extensive ground game in the state in the lead-up to the crucial North Carolina primary. In fact, I explained a week from that election that the results in that contest were just as crucial than those of Indiana, as Obama could effectively end the race with a strong result here - and that is exactly what happened.
The Obama campaign organized North Carolina, got the result it wanted, and realized that it already had the groundwork for a general election in place. Obama poured significant resources in the Tar Heel State throughout the summer, but numbers moved little, with McCain ahead by narrow margins, often just outside or within the margin of error. While that might have been frustrating for Democrats, it was still a remarkable feat for Obama to stay within striking distance even as the electorate became more polarized. And Obama got what it wanted two weeks ago when the McCain campaign was finally forced in the state to air advertisements. (There is talk of the GOP similarly moving in Indiana, but that doesn’t appear to have materialized for now.)
There is certainly a possibility that Obama’s surge in at least three North Carolina polls is linked to the improvement of his national numbers. If Obama decisively wins the popular vote (and he is comfortably leading in most national polls right now), North Carolina would probably fall, as would other states, and the more interesting question is whether Obama can pull off this state if the national race is competitive. That would certainly be more difficult, but keep in mind that Obama has a decisive organizational edge in this state.
Obama’s campaign has been working here since the spring, while the McCain camp has done very little until two weeks ago. Democrats are poised to take advantage of early voting and they have registered hundreds of thousands of new voters. The ground game could certainly boost Obama. Furthermore, some Democrats are hoping that Obama will benefit from the same effect he enjoyed in the primary season, where pollsters underestimated his level of support in Southern states - often because they put him at lower numbers than he got among black voters. (Rasmussen’s poll does put Obama at 98% of the black vote, however, so perhaps pollsters will be more careful of that effect in the general election.)
Insofar as the overall race is concerned, Obama’s rise in states like North Carolina, Indiana and perhaps also West Virginia puts McCain in a very difficult position. There are 6 weeks left to Election Day, and McCain cannot afford to refocus on these red states right now. A campaign wants to start locking states its more reliable states by late September, but the inverse seems to be happening to McCain.
So do Republicans take the bait, invest resources and candidates’ time (a precious commodity at this point) in North Carolina and Indiana at the expense of states like Minnesota and Wisconsin? Or do they bet that these states will come home by the end - and that if they don’t it would mean that the election is lost anyway? (That latter calculation is rather dangerous: all things being equal, NC would not fall before VA and Obama would have reached 270 with other states if he were to win the former; but if only one candidate is investing in a state, well, all things are not equal.)
Another very important consideration is how Obama’s competitivity affects down-ballot races. It is much easier for Kay Hagan (and, to some extent, Beverly Perdue) to compete in this Southern state if the top of the ticket is competitive and has an extensive ground game. It is difficult to imagine Hagan running much lower than Obama, and if the presidential race is essentially tied, her odds of toppling Dole have got to be high. And is it even conceivable at this point that Obama win without Hagan?