MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- Mitt Romney is expected to win most of the votes cast on Election Day in North Carolina. The question is whether the Republican presidential candidate can make up the presumptive deficit he’s in from early voting.
Statewide, more than 2.5 million votes had been cast as of Friday evening, on pace to eclipse the record-breaking 2008 total.
On Saturday’s final day of early voting, thousands of Charlotte voters waited in lines, some for more than two hours, at sites from University City to Steele Creek.
Democrats again have built a significant advantage in votes cast before Election Day, statewide data show. They’ve also further boosted turnout among blacks and women, groups more prone to vote Democratic.
But Republicans have been able to cut significantly into the early lead President Barack Obama’s campaign mounted four years ago. They’ve whittled the voting gap in urban areas like Wake County, and matched Democrats in Mecklenburg County.
The results left both parties pointing to numbers that suggest they had achieved their early-voting goals.
As of Friday night, totals showed:
• Forty-eight percent of early voters in North Carolina were registered Democrats, while about 32 percent were Republicans. Democrats held a 396,000-vote advantage.
• Republicans turned out roughly 111,000 more of their voters this year than in 2008. At the same time, 27,000 fewer Democrats had made it to the polls -- a statewide swing of 138,000 votes.
• Compared with 2008, fewer Democrats voted in 75 of the state’s 100 counties. Urban Wake County saw the largest drop-off, with 4,000 fewer Democrats.
• Democrats and Republicans both boosted turnout by about 16,500 in Mecklenburg County, though Democrats maintained a 51-27 percent edge.
Not all registered Democrats are expected to vote for Obama; nor all Republicans for Romney. There were also 511,000 ballots cast by unaffiliated voters.
But both parties are paying attention to the early voting results in North Carolina and 10 other battleground states as an indicator of their candidate’s support. Poll averages over the last several weeks have given Romney the edge in the state.
“I think this state is a lot closer than people think,” said Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer, who has been tracking early voting trends. “This could be another very close race simply because Democrats seem to be getting out their vote, but so too are Republicans and unaffilliateds.”
‘A far better job’
Republicans were caught off-guard in 2008 when Democrats banked a lead of more than half a million votes in North Carolina during the 2008 early voting period. Despite losing heavily on Election Day, Obama squeaked out a 14,000-vote win over John McCain and became the first Democrat to take the state’s 15 electoral votes since 1976.
This year, the Romney campaign opened 23 state offices and amassed a team of volunteers that has knocked on 100 times more doors and made six times as many phone calls as were made in 2008, N.C. Republican Party spokesman Rob Lockwood said.
"We have built the strongest ground game the Republican Party has ever built in North Carolina," Lockwood said. “We have done a far better job in voter contact. This time around, we’re not taking anything for granted.”
The party more than doubled early voter turnout in some Mecklenburg County precincts, particularly in the Mint Hill area.
Saturday morning, National Rifle Association volunteer Nathan Makla held a sign for Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Forest in front of the Morrision Regional Library as voters navigated gridlock in the parking lot. A Romney sign was propped up next to him.
Makla said his group and others like Americans for Prosperity (funded, in part, by the controversial Koch brothers of Kansas) have chipped in to help the Romney campaign ring doorbells and make calls.
“I think it’s leaps and bounds better,” Makla said of the Republican early voting presence. “It’s real this time. .”
National Republican campaign officials are starting to act like the state is in the bag.
Romney campaign political director Rich Beeson, on a conference call with reporters, said he couldn’t believe he was “still talking about” North Carolina as a competitive state.
Romney isn’t scheduled to make another visit to the state before Election Day.
Republicans point to the dwindling vote gap in the early voting period and are counting on unaffiliated voters to again break stronger for the Republican candidate.
‘Really strong position’
But Obama campaign officials contend that North Carolina is in play.
Their 54 state campaign offices have again driven a large number of voters to the polls early.
And a flurry of top Democrats will appear in the state during the final push. Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, stopped by Huntersville and Asheville on Friday. Former President Bill Clinton is slated to hold a rally in Raleigh on Sunday, while First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to be in Charlotte on Monday.
"We are in a really strong position in North Carolina, and the numbers tell us that,” said Obama for America state spokesman Cameron French.
A campaign memo says an influx of black and Hispanic potential voters has made the state demographically more open for Obama.
About 9,000 more young voters, aged 18 to 24, cast early ballots than in 2008. And 51,000 more black voters had cast their ballots, an 8.2 percent jump in a demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
Both groups were represented recently when two Obama campaign volunteers waited outside uptown’s Hal Marshall Annex for three young women they’d driven to the early voting site.
The volunteers applauded when the women -- all 21, African American, and casting their first votes for president -- emerged. The Obama campaign contacted them through a jobs program at Central Piedmont Community College, the women said, offering them a ride to the polls. Some of the students in their class don’t have cars, the women said, so they appreciated this opportunity to vote and vote early.
After they voted, the women expressed enthusiasm for both Obama and for early voting.
"Better to vote early than not at all," said Shaquille Jackson of Charlotte, who attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration with other students from West Charlotte High School. "(Under Obama), we’re progressing, getting out of the debt and the recession. Things don’t happen overnight. But the president is getting college students excited."
Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.