Obama gay-marriage decision a possible game-changer in NC

President Obama’s decision to personally endorse gay marriage could cost him North Carolina, a swing state both presidential campaigns are contesting vigorously.

While the decision might also cost the president votes in a few other swing states where polls suggest gay marriage is unpopular, it’s North Carolina that poses the biggest risk for the president in his general-election fight against presumed GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Obama won the Tar Heel State four years ago, partly on the strength of turnout by African-Americans, whom polls show largely do not embrace gay marriage. While most African-Americans are expected to stay in Obama’s camp, losing some, or depressing African-American turnout even slightly, could cost the president.

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Sixty-one percent of voters in North Carolina on Tuesday offered support for an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman, suggesting Obama faces some headwinds in the state on the issue.

And things weren’t looking great for the president in the state before.

Nathan Gonzales, the deputy editor at The Rothenberg Political Report — which last week dubbed North Carolina a “mess” for Obama even before the president’s acknowledgement on Wednesday — said the Tar Heel State is “more challenging” for Obama now.

“Romney had an advantage in North Carolina even before the events this week,” Gonzales said. “It makes it tougher on Obama now.”

The wedge issue might have consequences for Obama in other swing states, too.

A new PPP survey shows that Obama risks losing votes in Ohio, where 52 percent of those polled opposed gay marriage while 35 percent support the issue.

Other PPP surveys show that Florida — which banned gay marriage in a 2008 referendum — and Pennsylvania also have higher disapproval ratings on gay marriage than the national average.

Obama is depending on turnout in those key swing states as well as North Carolina and Virginia to keep them blue. Both states still include swaths of social conservatives invigorated by Obama’s decision to embrace gay marriage.

Yet Gonzales said while the issue might be a factor for voters in Virginia, “it’s not going to be the final decider.”

But it’s North Carolina —where Obama had an approval rating of 45 percent in April — that poses the biggest problem for the president, said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

“Winning that state again was never going to be easy,” MacManus said.

She added that the president’s views on gay marriage might “offset” some of the concerns about Romney’s Mormonism.

At the same time, Republicans are expressing confidence they’ll take back the state.

“The North Carolina of today looks a lot different than the one he won in 2008,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary for the Republican National Committee. She noted the state’s 9.7 percent unemployment rate and the 21 percent of Democrats who voted for “no preference” over Obama in the state’s primary.

“As they prepare for their convention, it’s safe to assume the Tar Heel state is a major headache for Chicago right now,” she said.

Two years ago, North Carolina seemed like a logical pick for Team Obama when it selected Charlotte as the host city for the Democratic National Convention. After all, the Tar Heel state, which hadn’t voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter, helped catapult Obama to the White House.

But in recent days, some are wondering if making a serious play for North Carolina was a good idea. Skeptics point to the fact that the Republicans took back the legislature in 2010 and to the state’s unpopular governor, Beverly Perdue, who is not seeking reelection, as proof.

Add to that the sexual harassment case making headlines in the state Democratic Party and you have, as one Democratic strategist called it, “a bit of a bad situation.”

The second-guessing was only made worse this week. After Tuesday’s vote, more than 20,000 people signed a petition on change.org to move the convention out of Charlotte.

“On May 8th, the people of North Carolina voted in support of Amendment One, a constitutional amendment that discriminates against LGBT people, couples & their families. In protest, the Democratic National Convention Committee should MOVE its convention (September 2012) to a state that upholds values of equality & liberty, and which treats ALL citizens equally,” the petition says.

But Obama campaign aides maintain the state is still very much in play and that the convention isn’t going anywhere.

They point to the president’s four visits to the state in recent months and its offices and their campaign's hefty ground operation from Charlotte to Asheville.

“We’ve been there since 2008 and we feel like we have the support we need to reelect the president,” said one Obama campaign official. “We’re excited to be there. We’re not discouraged at all.”

In his interview with ABC News on Wednesday, Obama acknowledged even he is uncertain about the political ramifications of his decision to support gay marriage.

“I think it’d be hard to argue that somehow this is something that I’d be doing for political advantage because frankly, you know ... the politics, it’s not clear how they cut,” Obama said. “In some places that are gonna be pretty important — in this electoral map — it may hurt me.”

Kerry Haynie, an associate professor of political science at Duke University, said turnout could be the biggest battle for Obama in this election.

“The enthusiasm level is less than what it was four years ago,” Haynie said, including among African-Americans.

“Their expectations haven’t been met,” he added. “Unemployment among African-Americans is still high.”

But Haynie said he doesn’t see the African-Americans who supported the vote in North Carolina this week turning their backs on Obama.

“I don’t think it translates,” he said. “He still draws big crowds and people are still, for the most part, happy to see him.”