Yes, Virginia, there is a North Carolina. But, no, it is not “in play”, as the appalling political vernacularites have come to describe states that might actually see a contest for Electoral College votes in November.
Or, more accurately, if North Carolina is actually in play, it will be because the economy has tanked, AND there is a renewed full-scale war in Iraq, AND George Bush has announced that he is gay. Seriously, the set of things that would have to be true for Kerry to win NC are not entirely implausible, but Kerry takes the state only as part of a “Bush will be playing the role of Mondale” landslide.
But then why choose Breck boy John Edwards for VP? I have seen questions among the cognoscenti, or at least those who, when they look in a mirror, think they see one of the cognoscenti: “Why choose a guy who can’t help win his home state?” As George Will points out, it actually happens fairly often. But the better question might be, why appoint a guy who couldn’t carry his home state even if he were at the top of the ticket?
Thinking that Edwards will help win in the South fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics of the Electoral College. But Edwards does sharply affect the dynamics of the race. Let me see if I can clear this up. (My students sometimes claim that they know less after a lecture than before, a net learning negative, so “clear up” may not be what happens). But, here goes.
Democrats look at a map of the U.S, and they hear a version of the country song: "Don't it make your red states blue?" (sing along!) It’s been a sad song now, for some time, except for the Clinton years, when it was a bizarre song.
Democratic presidential candidates can count on four states for sure: California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. That's 113 Electoral College votes. Throw in the little sure things for the Dems -- Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont -- and you are up to 141. (Note: You can do this game yourself, at the Electoral College Calculator! Honestly, though, it will make you nuts...)
Now take the states outside the South where the Repubs are a sure thing. I'll use the 11 non-southern states that voted for Dole in 1996 (if they voted for that guy, they are REAL Red states). That gives the Repubs a base of 55.
In the states that might be called "Southern" (I'll be expansive and use Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia), there are 168 Electoral College votes.
So, the math is simple: if the Dems concede the South (except for Florida: let's make it blue, just for fun), they start out at a 196-168 disadvantage. To catch up, the Dems have to sweep Illinois, Maryland, and Washington. If they win all those (if the race is close, they won't), the count stands at 196 R-210 D. Remember, the Dems need 270 EC votes to put their weeping, whining, waffling selves back in the White House, where the cognoscenti think they belong.
The problem is that the election would come down to the big close middle states: Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), Missouri (11) Ohio (20), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (21), and Wisconsin (10) -- with a total of 96 electoral votes. Those states were all close in 2000, and are likely to be close again. Somehow the winner is going to have to take 60 or more votes from a group of hotly contested states, when normal luck is going to yield no more than 40 or 50.
And...THAT IS WHY JOHN EDWARDS WAS APPOINTED VICE PRESIDENT! The Dems have to take 60 votes from Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In 2000, the Dems harvested 69 EC votes from those states, and several were by razor-thin margins.
John Edwards has two effects on the election; each is important, and together they could make the difference.
First, having Edwards on the ticket means that Bush-Cheney have to play some defense. They could lose Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, or Virginia if they ignore the South. If they spend their time and treasure in those states (and, yes, in North Carolina, too), they will not lose those states (though remember I counted Florida as a Kerry-Edwards win). But every minute, and every dollar, spent in southern states playing defense means that it is not spent in the M-M-M-O-O-P-W states that will determine the outcome. Edwards makes Bush spread out his defense, a lot.
(Some reporters have told me that they believe the Repubs have infinite money, and this won't matter. But the campaign only has so much time, and so much money where you can say, "My name is Dubya, and I approved this ad". The shadowy bogeymen with money, like George Soros and Barbara Streisand, are giving like crazy to the Dems, anyway)
A spread out defense really helps the ground game of the offense. (Yes, a football metaphor. Sue me). And that is the other factor that makes Edwards matter: His ground game is perfect for the M-....-W states. "Two Americas, you people have been done wrong, but you should be proud to be Americans, vague optimism, short on specifics, I love all of you, check out my hair": I'm not quoting, of course, but that is the robotically recorded stump speech Edwards has been repeating since December. He is sufficiently life-like that you can't tell he is animatronic, and the speech is PERFECT for the economically damaged states of the midwest.
So, in a nutshell. Edwards doesn't win the South, or even Southern states. But his Southern attraction, and his message, may mean that Kerry wins the industrial midwest, and the election.