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Opinion,Politics & Elections

The Key Unanswered Question

Mar. 21st, 2012
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RALEIGH – As we near the end of the first quarter of 2012, North Carolina politics is an enterprise rife with unanswered – and, for now, unanswerable – questions.

Here is the most important one: what will North Carolina’s economy look like in six months?

If current trends continue, the official unemployment rate may have fallen into the single-digits, but few North Carolinians will feel ebullient about the economy. They will have suffered a summer of high gas prices and low growth. They’ll remain disappointed with the economy and disenchanted with incumbency. They’ll vote for change, with the likely result that Republicans will win the state for their presidential nominee as well as the governor’s mansion, several other statewide races, a 10-3 majority in the congressional delegation, continued majorities in the General Assembly, and continued parity in partisan control of county commissions across the state.

If our economic performance falls short of expectations, however – perhaps energy prices will rise so high that our weak economic recovery will disappear entirely – Republicans may do even better than that. They might take several Council of State seats from Democrats, pad their legislative majorities, and capture a majority of county commissions and offices.

And if the economy unexpectedly strengthens, with voters experiencing solid gains in their employment prospects and disposable income, I think Democrats could eke out a win for Barack Obama in North Carolina, limit their loss of congressional seats to three, reduce GOP majorities in the legislature (perhaps enough in the N.C. House to affect key votes in 2013-14), and regain a clear majority of county commissions.

Notice that in all three scenarios, Pat McCrory wins the governor’s race, the GOP picks up congressional seats, and the GOP continues to control the legislature. These are high-probability events. Only some sort of political catastrophe or economic miracle will change them. Bev Perdue has proven to be a political catastrophe for North Carolina Democrats, a gift for Republicans that just keeps on giving. Through partisan gerrymandering, the GOP produced such a favorable congressional map that only catastrophically bad nominees and campaigns on their part could change the outcome. And while in a good year Democrats still have a chance under the new legislative maps to pick up enough seats for a majority, they appear to have failed to field enough legislative candidates to make the math work.

Also notice that in none of the three North Carolina political scenarios did I predict what the national outcomes will be. I agree with Election Projection’s Scott Elliott that the presidential race should currently be thought of as a near-tie. Barack Obama and likely opponent Mitt Romney would likely be separated by a percentage point or less in the popular vote. Obama would win all of the reliably blue states. Romney would win all of the reliably red states. The outcome in the Electoral College would hinge on the outcomes of just a few hard-fought battlegrounds.

My own view is that it will come down to Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. All are currently colored light blue. If Romney wins Virginia and just one more state, he’s president. If Romney loses Virginia and wins three of the four other states, he either wins outright or ties Obama in the Electoral College, which would also be a win because the GOP controls many more U.S. House delegations than the Democrats do.

If Romney accomplishes neither feat, Obama gets four more years. And if Romney is still fighting tooth-and-nail in October to win back North Carolina for the GOP, that would likely signal national defeat.

As for what color the battleground states will assume on Election Day 2012, I simply have no idea. I get to say that, right?

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.