EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN has sent dozens of reporters, producers, conntributors and correspondents to the key battleground states to cover the final days of the 2012 election. Here CNN political contributor John Avlon gives his take upon arriving in North Carolina aboard the CNN Election Express.
(CNN) - The CNN Election Express is rolling up I-95 North right now into Winston-Salem, North Carolina. President Obama won the state by a razor-thin 14,000-vote margin in 2008, buoyed by his landslide win that year. Fast-growing swing districts like Winston-Salem were an important reason why Obama was able to pull the evangelical-heavy state into the Democratic column.
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The Obama campaign targeted the Tar Heel State again in 2012, going as far to host their convention in Charlotte this year in an attempt to gain local goodwill. So far, it doesn't seem like the investment has paid off. While polls remain relatively close, Romney is in pole position, and the CNN Electoral Map has moved the state from toss-up to lean Republican.
The dynamics driving the state are a good illustration of why this is such a tight race in battleground states throughout the nation. President Obama won swing districts in swing states decisively in 2008 – the wave of enthusiasm was enough to sweep him to victory even in states which Democrats had a hard time winning in recent decades.
First, the economics are still rough for incumbents – unemployment rates are down from their peak, but they are still higher than national averages.
But the real campaign strategy dynamic is demographics. Team Obama was betting that demographic trends in North Carolina would propel them to victory again. The theory was that an influx of African-American votes from the north, combined with a steadily growing Hispanic population, local university students and a college-education white migration into areas like the Research Triangle would be able to propel them past conservatives, evangelicals and the good ole boy crowd.
But the risk with this strategy is that it might be more effective in 2016 or 2020 than in 2012.
One early barometer was the decisive vote to put a ban on same sex marriage in North Carolina. The ballot proposition was hotly contested but in the end it wasn't close. The next day, President Obama bravely announced that he personally supported marriage equality, which was too little too late but also highlighted his disconnect with the local electorate.
President Obama is trailing with white voters compared to where he was four years ago and the increased diversity in some of these southern swing states in particular is not yet enough to compensate for that decreased level of support. That's one reason President Obama is hitting the campaign trail with Bill Clinton in these final days – he needs more of the Bubba vote to win.
In the long run, the GOP strategy of increasing its share of the white vote won't work, but in the long term the demographic shifts are not occurring fast enough to fulfill Democrats' dreams of realigning states like North Carolina.