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Slow rebound may determine whether NC really swung

Saturday - 9/15/2012, 12:01pm  ET

AP National Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - In many ways, Keith Fountain's personal economic odyssey is North Carolina's.

After a decade at Lucent Technologies, Fountain was making $22 an hour working in the company's warehouse in Concord, northeast of Charlotte, when he was laid off in July 2009. He used a federal retraining grant to go back to community college, but decided he'd rather be working, so he took a part-time job making sandwiches in a grocery deli to supplement his unemployment check.

After two years and hundreds of applications, the 49-year-old Army veteran finally landed another manufacturing job, driving a forklift for a company that makes components for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. It paid $13.75 an hour.

Since President Barack Obama took office, Fountain says he and his wife, Mary, have slipped "down toward the bottom end of the middle class."

Big fall, slow recovery.

Four years ago, Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win North Carolina since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Pundits called the victory historic, but it came by the slimmest of margins, just 14,000 votes out of nearly 4.4 million cast.

History suggests that if the economy doesn't show substantial improvement in the year before a presidential election, the incumbent loses. North Carolina's recovery from the "Great Recession" has lagged behind the nation's.

Between February 2008 and February 2010, the recession's lowest point, the state shed more than 330,000 jobs. More than half were in manufacturing and construction. As of July, North Carolina was still down more than 53,000 jobs from when Obama took office, and a report from the nonprofit North Carolina Budget & Tax Center says many of those gains have been in the low-wage sector.

At one point, the state's jobless rate reached 11.4 percent, making North Carolina one of only nine states where unemployment topped 11 percent. The rate is now 9.6 percent, more than a percentage point above the national average.

Whether election history repeats itself in the Tar Heel state depends largely on whom residents blame for what even Obama has called an "incomplete" recovery. If 2010 elections, when Republicans gained control of the state General Assembly for the first time in more than a century, are any indication, Obama is in trouble, says economist Mark Vitner.

"There's a lot of angst about the economy," says Vitner, a managing director and senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte.

Fountain says he does not blame the president for his financial setbacks.

"I mean, there are some things he could have handled a bit different," Fountain says of the man he voted for in 2008, and for whom he intends to vote again this November. "But, for the most part, he's made every effort he can to turn things around. Just with the obstructionists in Congress and stuff, it's been hard to get anything done."

Charlotte career counselor Randy Mitchell says others might not be so forgiving.

"I think many people expected here, four years later, there would have been more of an improvement than there has been," says Mitchell, who works to link laid-off professionals with franchise opportunities. "The people I talk with, I don't believe most of them blame the current administration for this continued economic malaise. I do think many of them, though, do vote with their wallets and may say, `Hey. Maybe it's time for a change.'"


Driving around the capital city, it's not unusual to minivans with vanity plates declaring the occupants a "house divided": One side UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heel blue, the other N.C. State Wolfpack red.

The plates are an apt political metaphor for The Old North State.

On paper, Democrats outnumber Republicans here by about 760,000. But when it comes to presidential elections, North Carolina's heart has been pretty reliably red.

Carter's victory came in the wake of the Watergate scandal, "an odd election," says Michael Munger, a professor of political science, public policy and economics at Duke University in Durham. In 2008, there was that electric feeling that history was in the offing.

With the sluggish recovery, says Munger, "all the air is just out of that balloon."

"Under the ideal conditions, Obama BARELY won," says Munger, the Libertarian Party's 2008 gubernatorial nominee. "It's not clearly a swing state."

The candidates are certainly treating it as if it is.

Through the end of August, the campaigns and independent groups had spent about $56 million on television spots here. That places North Carolina, which has 15 electoral votes, fourth in total ad spending.

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