DURHAM, N.C. -- It's a tale of two swing states.
Visit North Carolina these days and -- other than beer sold in drugstores and radio commercials for the Scotty McCreery Christmas album -- it feels a lot like Pennsylvania did four years ago.
Political yard signs stand at attention at busy intersections. Candidates, or at least their surrogates, descend like periodic cicadas. And network television overflows with national political ads.
In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, the attention lavished in 2008 -- both in the general election and in the fiercely contested Pennsylvania primary, has vanished almost completely.
In some Pittsburgh neighborhoods, candidate yard signs are scarcer than Ravens flags. Even in places like politically active Squirrel Hill, signs are just as likely to be advertising handyman companies or protesting fracking than supporting Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
"For Pennsylvania this year, we have the ability to contrast the two, more so than any state in the country," said Chris Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "You can't pick a state in recent memory where the juxtaposition from one election cycle to the next has been so different."
The Electoral College being the Electoral College, some states have always mattered more than others in presidential elections. But in the last decade, as the country has become increasingly polarized and campaign data has become more sophisticated, that number of states has shrunk.
"Since 2000 there's been a narrowing of the map where there are fewer states that are really purple," said Sasha Issenberg, author of the "The Victory Lab," a book on the science of presidential campaigning. "It just means that campaigns will overwhelmingly focus on states that they know are in play and will be pretty ruthless about cutting off ones that aren't serving their strategic purposes."
In 1988, as many as 35 states were in play at some point in the election, said Mr. Issenberg. For this election, that number was, at its highest, in the low 20s and is now closer to 10. Just three states -- Florida, Ohio and Virginia -- hosted more than 60 percent of candidate events between early September and mid-October, according to FairVote.org.
Pennsylvania was showered with attention in 2008 during both the general election and the Democratic primary (by one tally, Bill Clinton made 47 stops in rural Pennsylvania campaigning for his wife). According to FairVote, Pennsylvania saw 13 percent of candidate event appearances between early September and mid-October in 2008, compared with 0.1 percent this year.
"Republicans have looked at Pennsylvania in the past and tried really hard here to win the state, spending an incredible amount of time and money and not come up with one electoral vote," said Mr. Borick. "That's what makes a party gun shy. You see polls and it's a very competitive state, but, here's the key, it's all return on investment."
Further working against Pennsylvania is that it's an expensive media market -- particularly Philadelphia, where ads are not just pricey but also wasted on lots of voters in New Jersey and Delaware.
On paper, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are equally close. The average poll figures on Real Clear Politics had Mr. Romney up 5 percentage points in North Carolina, and Mr. Obama up 4.8 percentage points in Pennsylvania.
But in North Carolina, it looks like there's an election going on. Actually, there is an election going on: In-person early voting started on Oct. 18. And even though polls there aren't as close as they once were, both sides are still campaigning "full-throttle," said Mr. Issenberg.
Wearing an "I Voted" sticker, 20-year-old Stefani Jones chatted with a classmate at a polling place near the Duke University Chapel in Durham, N.C. Although the Duke junior avidly follows politics in her hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., she decided to cast her vote for Mr. Obama from the Duke campus.
"My vote is more important in North Carolina," she said. "The stakes are higher here."
Political activity has been "unreal" on campus, she said. Duke Democrats set up a table even at a campus tailgate before last weekend's Duke-North Carolina football game, flying a large Obama "Hope" banner. The group has hosted campaign events such as "Puppies for Progress," said co-president David Winegar, offering the attraction of cute puppies as an incentive for students to register to vote.
Four years ago, North Carolina didn't start out as a swing state. Knowing that the state hadn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter, Republicans initially focused their resources elsewhere.
In the meantime, Mr. Obama was investing heavily in North Carolina, targeting its large black population and taking advantage of a new same-day registration law for college students.
"Democrats took Republicans by surprise," said Todd Collins, professor of political science at Western Carolina University. "By the time they realized, it was almost too late. Obama and the Democrats had the structures in place and late in the cycle, Republicans jumped in."
Mr. Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by 14,000 votes -- the closest margin of any state.
That victory came because of dramatically increased turnout from young voters and African-American voters, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, thousands of whom voted only for president and ignored lower offices.
He was also helped by demographic changes in the state, as an agricultural and manufacturing economy shifted toward information technology and banking.
In downtown Durham, long-defunct tobacco factories have been refurbished into places like Posh The Salon and West End Wine Bar.
This election, predictions are that winning the Tar Heel State will be more difficult for Democrats. For one, Republicans most certainly have not written off North Carolina -- smothering and covering the state like cheese and onions on a Waffle House hash brown. "We are seeing a lot of attention," said Mr. Collins, noting recent separate appearances by Mitt Romney and his son, Tagg, in western North Carolina.
An unpopular Democratic governor, dissatisfaction with the state and national economic recovery and weaker enthusiasm for Mr. Obama will also make North Carolina more likely to swing back to the Republican column this election, said Mr. Taylor.
Pennsylvania, by contrast, is polling toward the Democrats -- yet again. A Republican presidential candidate hasn't won Pennsylvania since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Presidential candidates are not airing network television commercials, and visits by candidates have been rare: Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney nor Vice President Joe Biden has stopped by the Pittsburgh region since the Democratic Convention.
Paul Ryan did campaign last week at the Pittsburgh International Airport -- a brief appearance on his way to the bonafide swing state of Ohio.
"Even though the polls say it's pretty close, until it actually ends up something other than Democrat, we're a second-tier swing state," Mr. Borick said of Pennsylvania. "We used to be cool."
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308.