Mitt Romney returned North Carolina to the Republican fold Tuesday after arguing during an expensive, hard-fought campaign that President Barack Obama should have done more to help the state’s battered economy.
With all 100 counties reporting, the Massachusetts governor was leading Obama by 50.44 percent to 48.3 percent in one of the closest contests in the country.
In voting for Romney, North Carolina returned to its red-state tradition. It voted Republican in nine of the 11 previous presidential elections, casting ballots for Democrats only in 1976 for Jimmy Carter and for Obama four years ago.
Obama surprised many when he won the state in 2008, the most Southern state culturally if not geographically, that he carried, winning by a narrow 14,000 votes.
The president had gambled that he could win the state again, holding the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September, and investing large sums in a massive grass-roots effort here. But Obama lost the state by about 96,000 votes – a little more than a 2 percent shift from four years ago.
Obama saw some of his support erode as the state, with its heavy manufacturing economy, endured one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. It now stands at 9.6 percent, the fifth highest in the country.
Since spring, the Romney campaign and its allies who support super PACs have run a $45 million advertising campaign reminding voters of the disappointing economy and the rising national debt, and arguing that Romney would be a better steward of the economy.
The economy was uppermost in the minds of North Carolina voters, with 59 percent calling it the most important issue facing the country, according to exit polling conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of news organizations. Health care was rated 20 percent, and the federal budget deficit, 14 percent.
More than half of North Carolina voters said they would repeal parts or all of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, according to the exit poll.
Reuben Hocutt, 52, of Zebulon said he voted for Romney because he thinks Republican leadership will do a better job of growing the economy.
“If we elect someone with capitalistic values, business owners and people in general will be more likely to free-up their money,” he said. “I know that, at my job, there have been layoffs in the last 4 years.”
Jamey Rock and his wife, Sally Rock, both 28, of Raleigh said they voted a straight Republican ticket when they voted at Trinity United Methodist Church in Oakwood.
“I feel like government needs a concept of budgeting that it just doesn’t have,” said Jamey Rock, who is in graduate school getting his business and law degree.
Still the presidential race here was among the closest in the country, which is why North Carolina was designated as one of the nation’s top battleground states.
The unofficial returns showed 2,273,704 votes for Romney and 2,176,962 votes for Obama.
According to exit polls, Romney won the men (51 percent) in North Carolina, while Obama won the women (52 percent). Romney also won whites (65 percent), while Obama won blacks (96 percent).
But Obama did not do as well among white voters this year as he did in 2008, when he won 35 percent.
There were probably a lot of instances where the grandparents were voting for Romney and the grandchildren were voting for Obama.
Voters in the 18-29 category voted for Obama (64 percent), while voters 65 and older tended to vote for Romney (61 percent).
‘No short-term solutions’
Mike Yocum, an information technology professional in Cary, said he only recently decided to vote for Obama, like he did in 2008. What swayed his decision was former President Bill Clinton’s speech Sunday at Pullen Park in Raleigh.
“He mentioned that it takes more than four years to fix the economy,” Yocum said, “and I think he’s right.”
Lucia Mackey, 56, originally from Chile, has lived in the United States for 30 years but only became an American citizen last year. This was her first time voting, and she cast her ballot for Obama because she felt Obama better represented the diversity of the country, and she could better relate to his struggles and his journey to success.
“There are no short-term solutions to the problems we’re having,” she said.
Three out of four voters said they made up their minds about whom to vote for before September; only 3 percent decided on election day, and another 3 percent decided during the past few days, according to exit polls.
North Carolina turned out to be a B-level battleground state, with an air and ground war but without seeing much of the candidates.
The Obama campaign never fully left the state after 2008, keeping an office open a few blocks from the Capitol. It built a huge ground operation, that included thousands of volunteers and about 350 staffers.
In 2008 the campaign of Republican John McCain was caught by surprise by the Obama campaign, and the Romney campaign sharply stepped up its get-out-the-vote efforts in the state. Even so, the Romney campaign was playing catch up, beginning six months after the Obama effort.
The Romney campaign did have an advantage in the air war, where $69 million was spent in the state – the sixth highest amount in the country.
About $45 million was spent on pro Romney ads, much of it from super PAC supporting Romney while $24.2 million was spent by Obama.
Both Obama and Romney made five campaign trips to North Carolina, although Romney never made a public appearance east of High Point.
North Carolina’s importance declined during the fall, with polls showing Romney opening up a small lead, and the focus of the presidential campaign shifting to such states as Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Florida and Virginia.
Obama’s last appearance in the state was during the Democratic convention in Charlotte, while Romney made one post-convention visit to the Asheville area in early October, mainly to have his photograph taken with evangelist Billy Graham. Instead, they sent surrogates including singers James Taylor, Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey, all Obama supporters.
But the Obama campaign was encouraged by its early-voting effort, and several polls showing the race tightening. During the early voting period, 2.7 million people voted, with 47 percent registered Democrat, 31 percent registered Republican and 20 percent unaffiliated.
During the last weekend, the campaign sent Jill Biden to Asheville, Clinton to Raleigh, and Michelle Obama to Charlotte to see whether the Obama campaign could once again surprise the experts and pull off an upset.
Contributing to this story were staff writers Mandy Locke and Austin Baird.