Election 2008: Southern Swing State Watch and why NC is in play

We're less than 12 days until the election. Which Southern states can still claim the coveted title of "battleground" in the presidential race?

Five states in the South have made a legitimate claim to the swing state mantle at some point this year: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. (The rest are all considered safe bets for McCain.)

Here's how these states rank now in terms of swingability -- the chances that a state could go either way. To rank the states, I combined the polling trend estimates at Pollster.com and state projections at 538.com:
2008 Presidential Race

1 - North Carolina - Obama +2.2
2 - Florida - Obama +2.5
3 - Georgia - McCain +5.5
4 - Virginia - Obama + 7.2
5 - West Virginia - McCain +8.3
Virginia and West Virginia are moving into safe territory for Obama and McCain, respectively. Georgia is closer but still likely to break to McCain, despite the record registrations of young and African-American voters.

That brings it down to North Carolina and Florida.

The differences between these two states captures how much 2008 has changed the electoral map. Clinton won Florida once and it's been a swing state for three cycles; North Carolina has only gone for a Democratic president once since 1964.

But they share a common factor: both states are rapidly changing, which has turned both into an opportunity for the Democrats.

If Obama wins North Carolina, it will be because a perfect storm of factors have come together for Democrats in 2008, including: a widespread sentiment for change, frustration over the tough hit on NC's economy, Obama's ability to mobilize a sizable number of core voters in NC, lack of excitement among religious conservatives for McCain -- even same-day voter registration, which tends to boost youth and African-American turnout.

But North Carolina is also in play thanks to Obama's huge fundraising advantage, which allowed him to fight for a state that other Democratic hopefuls have written off when faced with scarce resources and the need for Electoral College triage.

In other words, a variety of forces gave Obama an opportunity in North Carolina -- but the reason the state is the closest in the South today is because Obama chose to fight here.