A cardboard box emblazoned with a big white check mark sits on the sill by the front door of Nicholson Barber & Style Shop, a stack of voter registration forms beside it. It's one of hundreds the Obama campaign placed at black-owned businesses in and around the state capital.
In 2008, black voter turnout increased by 127,000 from the previous presidential election. That enthusiasm was the key to Obama's victory.
Sitting in his empty shop on a rainy afternoon, Carlton Nicholson says many of his cash-strapped customers are "waiting longer between cuts" and that his business is off by about 10 percent. Nicholson voted for Obama in 2008 and plans to do so again, but he says it's going to take more than a few hundred boxes to keep North Carolina from crossing back over into the red column.
"What most of us don't realize is that the black vote cannot elect anyone," says Nicholson, who, come November, will have been in this same downtown location 30 years. "I do feel that the economy needs to start blossoming again if he's going to have chance."
The worst of the job losses appear to have passed, Gitterman says. But as with the nation as a whole, the state's economy "still is not growing robustly enough to absorb all those who want and need work, so a full economic recovery remains a distant goal."
"The economic picture may be improving a bit, but North Carolina is not out of the woods yet," Gitterman says. "Not by a long shot."
But there are glimmers.
If you have an iPhone, pull it out and ask Siri where she lives. She'll answer: "That's classified."
But don't let the accent, or lack of one, fool you: She's a Tar Heel.
Apple built a data center in Maiden north of Charlotte to support its iCloud online data storage system and the silken-voiced Siri software. Earlier this year, the company filed plans with the state to build a 4.8-megawatt power plant that will generate electricity from hydrogen. It's promoted as the nation's largest private fuel cell energy project.
Drawn by the promise of cheap power and generous tax incentives, Facebook, Google, IBM, Time Warner Cable and American Express have all announced plans to build large Internet server sites in the western part of the state. But while these projects that are high on tech, they're low on jobs, says Vitner, who tracks national and regional economic trends for Wells Fargo.
During a tour of the Rust Belt in July, Obama touted his rescue of the U.S. auto industry and declared that, "As long as we're competing on a fair playing field instead of an unfair playing field, we'll do just fine." That's a harder sell in states such as North Carolina, whose signature industries have been ravaged by foreign competition.
"The president couldn't give a speech like he gave in Ohio in Hickory, N.C.," Vitner says. "They wouldn't buy into the idea that what we're doing is working."
Not far from Hickory is a company that the president held up as proof of American resilience. During a White House forum on job creation last January, the president singled out Lincolnton Furniture as proof that "you don't have to be a big manufacturer to in-source jobs." Later, during Obama's state of the union address, company president Bruce Cochrane was up in the gallery, one of the guests in the first lady's box.
Furniture-making in Cochrane's family stretches back five generations to his great-great grandfather, who began making church pews in the 1850s. But when the industry turned to China in the mid-1990s as a cheap source of labor, Cochrane followed the jobs and went east as a consultant.
Cochrane says the decision to reopen his family's factory in Lincolnton wasn't political, patriotic or even nostalgic. It was "purely business."
"It wasn't that I thought, 'Well now that the Obama administration's here in 2010, it just makes sense for me to do this,'" he says. "It made sense for me to do it because the timing was right based on the landscape — both politically and economically."