Want to know who will win the presidential race in November?
Forget South Carolina. (The candidates will.)
Instead, focus on North Carolina and a dozen other states.
As it has done in every presidential cycle since 1980, conservative South Carolina’s nine electoral voters will be won by the Republican nominee — in this case, Mitt Romney — leaving little reason for national Democrats or Republicans to pay attention to the Palmetto State.
South Carolina’s two political parties aren’t even focusing on the Palmetto State. Instead, both have turned their attention to neighboring North Carolina, one of about a dozen toss-up states considered winnable by either candidate.
The candidate — Democratic incumbent Barack Obama or Romney — who wins the most electoral votes in those states will win in November.
Consider recent history.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush did well in the swing states and won the presidency. In 2008, President Obama grew the list of swing states to about a dozen, claiming surprise wins in North Carolina, Indiana and Virginia.
This year will be more of the same. The key will be whether voters in those key states are still in the 2008 mood for change that ushered Obama to victory or whether they are in the 2010 Tea Party mood of limited government and less taxation.
Both candidates will face challenges as they fight to clinch the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
Obama is unlikely to galvanize as many voters as he did four years ago, when he was the first African-American candidate on a major party’s ticket. And the struggling economy remains an albatross around his neck.
But conservatives are not enthusiastic about Romney either who has struggled with a flip-flopper image and questions about his time at the helm of private equity firm, Bain Capital.
Battleground North Carolina
Both the S.C. Democratic and Republican parties are sending S.C. volunteers to North Carolina in hopes of swaying the result there.
In some ways, the state is similar to right-leaning South Carolina. For example, it too has an anti-union sentiment and its voters, like those in South Carolina in 2006, overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage this year.
Also, in 2010, N.C. Republicans took control of the state’s Legislature — a first in more than 100 years. Both houses of South Carolina’s Legislature have been GOP-controlled for a dozen years.
But the Tar Heel state is growing in a way that helps Democrats. Its urban centers are outpacing its rural areas in population growth, which allowed Obama to squeak out a North Carolina win in 2008.
As North Carolina continues to become less white and more urban, Democrats hope to win again in November, going so far as choosing Charlotte for their national convention in September in an attempt to woo Tar Heels.
S.C. Democrats, many of whom went to North Carolina in 2008 to help Obama, are helping out again.
S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said the party, in partnership with Obama for America, has been sending volunteers to North Carolina for the past three months to knock on voters’ doors.
“Do you want to wake up on Nov. 7 to four years of President Mitt Romney? Four years of the 1 percent driving the rest of us into financial ruin?” reads an email blasted out last week from Harpootlian to S.C. Democrats. “Just one day of volunteering between now and election day in North Carolina by phone or in person can make the difference.”
S.C. Republicans too are organizing to send volunteers to North Carolina, Ohio and other toss-up states, said Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, with plans to kick the effort into full swing in August.
“North Carolina is going to swing back” Republican, Connelly predicted. “People, particularly young people, were duped by Obama into believing he represented something different. Instead, he’s a left-leaning socialist, and we all know it now.”
An average of recent North Carolina polls by the website Real Clear Politics puts the two candidates in a neck-and-neck race with Romney up by 1.3 percentage points.
Shifting populations, shifting politics
Besides North Carolina, the battleground states this year are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Some battleground states, including Virginia, are seeing their longtime politics changes as their populations change.
High growth in northern Virginia, including the diverse suburbs of Washington, has turned Virginia, once solidly Republican, into a swing state. Obama won the state in 2008 — the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
And he could win the state — heavily dependent on federal jobs — again in November. Obama leads Romney by 3 percentage points in an average of six Virginia polls, compiled by Real Clear Politics.
Labor unions could shape the campaign in several key swing states, including Ohio with its high percentage of unionized workers in the steel and auto industries.
Ohio is a must-win for Romney. Over the last half-century, no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.
President Obama won the state by 5 percentage points in 2008. However, Ohio’s state politics have shifted in the GOP’s favor since then. In 2010, Republicans successfully won the governor’s office, took back the state House of Representatives and replaced five Democrats in the U.S. House.
But a fight over labor unions threatens Republicans newfound Ohio power.
In 2011, the Legislature, backed by the state’s Republican governor, attempted to reduce unions’ bargaining rights. However, voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea in a referendum. Gov. John Kasich’s approval rating remains well below 50 percent, making him as less-than-ideal friend to the Romney camp.
Taking on unions also will be part of the discussion in another battleground state, Wisconsin. There, Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall vote last month, with some help from S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, after he took on his state’s unions.
It’s likely to be a similar fight in Michigan, where voters have, for the past five presidential cycles, picked the Democratic nominee, in part, because of GOP hostility toward labor unions.
Michigan suffers from one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, which could give Romney, a Michigan native whose father was a popular governor there, a much-needed boost.
But President Obama will continue to counter that joblessness would be worse in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio if the federal government had not bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, a bailout he will note — again, and again, and again — that Romney opposed.
Swing states Obama may lose
Several once solidly Republican states turned their back on their GOP roots in 2008, casting their electoral votes for Obama instead, seemingly becoming swing states. But as the economy continues to struggle, Obama has lost his luster in some of the states.
Indiana voters, for example, narrowly chose Obama in 2008. It was the first time in 40 years that a Democratic presidential candidate had taken the state. But media reports suggest that Hoosiers’ 2008 pride in Obama, from the neighboring state of Illinois, has all but vanished as Indiana’s economy has continued to struggle.
It is a similar scene in Nevada, where foreclosure and unemployment rates remain high. Add to that a large Mormon population and Romney has a good shot at winning the state. Meanwhile, the Obama camp hopes that Nevada’s large Hispanic population will benefit the incumbent.
And in Iowa, where Obama ignited young and middle-aged voters in 2008, media reports say supporters have not been impressed with his first term. He may struggle to rev up the state’s large number of independent voters, who are moderate, as well as its evangelical Christians, who disagree with his backing of gay marriage. Polling shows Obama and Romney in a dead heat in the state, which launched Obama’s 2008 campaign after he beat Hillary Clinton in its caucuses.
Other ballot items
The presidential race in the battleground states also could be affected by ballot referendums that motivate large numbers of voters — Democrats or Republicans, or both — to show up at the polls.
Hot-button ballot measures have been employed as a successful strategy since 2004, when they were credited with upping the conservative turnout in swing states. In 2006, for example, many believe an Ohio ballot measure — defining marriage as being between a man and a woman — helped President George W. Bush narrowly win re-election.
Ohio has no similarly divisive measure on the ballot this time around.
But some other states do.
In the kingmaker state of Florida, which boasts the nation’s third-largest number of electoral votes, voters will decide whether public money should be barred from going to health insurance policies that include abortion coverage.
And, in Colorado, a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use could turn out liberal voters.
The presidential map
Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.