RALEIGH – Over the past couple of weeks, events inside and outside of North Carolina have eliminated many uncertainties about the 2012 election.
In other words, the political table has been set – by which I don’t mean to suggest that the 2012 election will resemble some kind of genteel dinner party. Perhaps a better analogy would be a tension-filled family reunion, or even a spirited food fight in a middle-school cafeteria.
At the national level, the presidential race will likely pit Democrat Barack Obama against Republican Mitt Romney, who will mainly challenge the president on economic policy and job creation. Obama will attempt some defense but will mainly respond by attacking Romney’s political changeability and business background. Others will be on the presidential ballot, as well: definitely a Libertarian, who will disproportionally siphon votes from Romney, and possibly someone from the Center-Left, who’d do the same to Obama.
In North Carolina, the governor’s race will be a rematch between Democrat Bev Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory. In 2008 Perdue was able to combine attacks on McCrory’s record and a strong pro-Obama surge to eke out a victory. The 2012 race will mainly be a referendum on Perdue’s tenure and the state’s economic health. Naturally, the governor’s campaign will try to shift the focus to other issues by tying McCrory to controversial positions taken by Romney and Republicans in Congress or the legislature.
Having read the arguments from both sides of North Carolina’s redistricting dispute, I suspect that the state’s congressional and legislative maps, while far from ideal, will withstand legal challenge in whole or for the most part. That means that Democrats will go into the cycle with several disadvantages:
• The redrawn congressional map endangers the reelection of at least two Democratic incumbents, Brad Miller and Larry Kissell, and possibly Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler as well. At least two Republican incumbents, Patrick McHenry and Virginia Foxx, have seen their GOP strongholds weakened somewhat as a result – you can’t make Democratic districts less safe without doing the same to neighboring Republican ones – but probably not enough to imperil their reelection.
• The new General Assembly districts transform what was once a pronounced Democratic lean into a pronounced Republican lean. Redistricting is not necessarily destiny – remember that the GOP took both houses of the legislature in 2010 despite a lingering Democratic gerrymander – but if the legislative maps survive challenge the Democrats will be fighting steeply uphill in both chambers.
• The huge fundraising advantages that North Carolina Democrats have enjoyed for decades are over. Republicans reduced but did not eliminate the gap during the 2010 cycle, and did well. In 2012, I suspect that McCrory and the Republican congressional and legislative candidates will be have at least rough parity with their Democratic opponents in cash for advertising, organization, technology, and other tools of the trade.
While North Carolina Democrats’ traditional quantitative advantage in campaign resources is gone, they may still retain a qualitative edge – a technology-driven system for getting out the Democratic vote that originated with the 2008 Obama campaign and has been further refined since then.
At the grassroots, both political coalitions contain energized North Carolinians (e.g. Republicans eager to vote Obama out, Democrats mad at the GOP-led legislature) as well as North Carolinians who aren’t yet chomping at the bit to vote (e.g. Republicans who find Romney boring or insufficiently conservative, Democrats who are disappointed with Obama or resigned to defeat in congressional and legislative races).
I think it is too early to tell what the relative proportions will be. But national Gallup polls suggest that the two parties are beginning the cycle at rough parity, 45 percent identifying with or leaning Democratic and 45 percent identifying with or leaning Republican.
On balance, that’s good news for the GOP. Unless there is a clear, widely recognized improvement in the economy over the next few months, truly undecided voters will likely swing against the incumbent chief executives, Obama and Perdue.
The possibility of such an economic improvement can’t be ruled out, however. Hey, I’m just setting the table here. Predictions come later.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.