Obama’s ROI in North Carolina

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North Carolina is the state where NASCAR meets the NASDAQ. The state’s largest city, Charlotte, is the hub of stock car racing but is also the nation’s No. 2 banking center behind New York. These two pillars of cultural and economic conservatism might not appear to present the best backdrop for a Democratic takeaway, but with less than 72 hours to go, Barack Obama is closing in on the checkered flag in North Carolina.

This notable change in voter preference is because North Carolina, perhaps more than any other state, has felt the severe pain of the financial crises. It’s a state where Sun Belt foreclosure problems have been compounded by Wall Street bank crashes, and some of North Carolina’s largest employers and home-grown institutions, like Wachovia, have gone belly-up.

As financial uncertainty grips North Carolina, Obama has made repeated trips there, armed with a steady message aimed at calming the unsteady nerves of the state’s investor class. It’s an investment that has paid dividends for him. As Obama’s national numbers rise as fast as the Dow has fallen, the Illinois senator’s popularity in North Carolina has skyrocketed since the market collapse.

Here’s a rundown of Obama’s ascent in the Tar Heel State vis-à-vis the decline in the market.

  • In early September, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was perched above 11,000 points and McCain had a comfortable lead in North Carolina. On September 10, for example, he was up by double-digits in the state according to the poll average on Real Clear Politics. The lead story of the day was Obama's reference to "lipstick on pig."

  • Days later, on September 15, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and Charlotte-based Bank of America purchased the financial giant Merrill Lynch. The deal was seen as a win for the city of Charlotte but BoA’s stock dropped 16% that day amid jitters. McCain still commanded an 11-point lead in the state, which would be his high-water mark.

  • Over the course of the next week the market and McCain's lead in North Carolina began to crumble. A Rasmussen survey released on September 18 showed him with only a three-point lead over Obama, and a number of smaller polling outfits over the next couple of days measured the two candidates in a statistical dead heat.

  • On September 21, Obama visited Charlotte, and in a park only blocks away from the Bank of America Corporate Center and the future NASCAR Hall of Fame, told voters, “Charlotte, I know these are difficult days. But here’s what else I know – I know we can steer ourselves out of this crisis. … It’s a time for resolve and a time for leadership.”

  • As uncertainty gripped the market and the country, investors began a quiet run on the banks. In the largest bank crash in the nation’s history, Washington Mutual fell on September 25th; by the 26th it was clear that Charlotte’s own Wachovia was also edging closer to collapse. Meanwhile, national polling operations including CNN and Fox News began to pick up a tie in the Tar Heel State.

  • On Monday, September 29, Wachovia announced that it was filing for Chapter 11 and was in talks with Citigroup. The next day, the Charlotte Observer wrote, "The deal is a dramatic fall for an N.C. institution -- the 2001 combination of Charlotte's First Union and Winston-Salem's Wachovia.”

  • A couple of weeks later Wachovia was acquired by San Francisco's Wells Fargo. The Charlotte Observer called it a "blow to Charlotte, which is sure to lose jobs and its prestige." And as the financial and emotional pain rippled through the city and North Carolina as a whole, McCain's lead evaporated in the polls.

  • On October 6, Hugh McColl Jr., the former chairman and CEO of Bank of America, wrote an op/ed for the Charlotte Observer endorsing Obama. He warned of the “economic disarray threatening our community” and suggested that “Obama's economic plans will restore market confidence.”

Over the course of October, Obama led the state in 15 polls while McCain was up in only four. In a state that gave George W. Bush a 14-point victory, Obama is now up by about two.

Meanwhile, the construction continues in downtown Charlotte on the Wachovia Financial Center and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The two buildings sit only two blocks away, but developers aren't sure who will occupy the Wachovia building and NASCAR powerhouse teams like Petty Enterprises and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. are struggling to find sponsors.

As the banking and racing institutions that have symbolized Charlotte and North Carolina’s rapid growth struggle through turbulence, Obama has been a steady presence in the state. His campaign has held 19 events there since the convention, and as the polls suggest, he’s gained a return on investment there that might even make Charlotte’s top bankers proud.

Patrick Ottenhoff, an analyst for New Media Strategies and a former staff writer for National Journal Group and The Hotline. Ottenhoff graduated from Kent School and Union College and is a native of McLean, Va. His writings have appeared in National Journal, Politico, MSNBC.com and Huffington Post. His political geography blog is The Electoral Map.