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Achilles Tar Heel

Mitt Romney’s not-so-solid South.

IN 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency with a coalition that was impressive in its range: Young people loved him, African Americans overwhelmingly supported him, and he was a hit with college graduates. But he also picked up votes in key states from working-class whites—a group he’d struggled to win over in the Democratic primaries. Four years later, that coalition isn’t looking so good. Obama remains popular with minorities and college-educated whites, but enthusiasm among white working-class voters has collapsed. Obama is embattled in upper Midwestern states that he carried by 10 points or more four years ago, like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan. And in some places—Indiana, Missouri, and Montana—the campaign has simply given up. 

But there’s one battleground state where Obama is doing surprisingly well: North Carolina. On the surface, Obama has no business competing in the Tar Heel state: He won it by just 14,177 votes in 2008. Yet his campaign is pouring major resources into the race, and the polls show that he and Mitt Romney are still neck and neck.

There’s a simple demographic explanation. Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina was different from his wins in other toss-up states, because it was less dependent on the white working class. In North Carolina, 50 percent of his supporters were minorities and only 27 percent were whites without a college degree. That makes his coalition in North Carolina more resilient than his support in other swing states. And it explains why Obama has conceded Indiana—which he won by a wider margin, but where 51 percent of his supporters were working-class whites—yet is still fighting hard in North Carolina.

Of course, with such a tenuous win in 2008, even minor losses among any group could cost him the state. But North Carolina is changing in ways that may work in Obama’s favor. Northern professionals continue to flock to the Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte metropolitan areas, reshaping the state’s politics just as the D.C. suburbs transformed Virginia. The state’s booming Latino population and its younger voters also represent untapped reservoirs of potential support. If Obama can pick up votes from these quarters, he may be able to overcome modest losses among working-class whites. One thing is for certain: North Carolina’s distinctive demographics ensure the race will come down to the wire. 

Nate Cohn is a staff writer at The New Republic. This article appeared in the August 2, 2012 issue of the magazine.