Like a UNC Tar Heels-Duke Blue Devils basketball matchup, North Carolina was always going to come down to the wire.
After North Carolina went blue in the 2008 election and red in the 2012 election, each by narrow margins, Trump carried the state in 2016 with a super slim majority of 50.5% of the vote.Already, this year, more than 3 million North Carolinians have voted -- about 67% of 2016 s total turnout -- and if the state polls are any indication, we could expect another tightly won race.
As a North Carolinian who has worked three Republican Senate races in my home state, Republican fervor for President Donald Trump still leaves me scratching my head.
Trump is not a traditional conservative. He is largely non-confrontational with Russia, for instance. This is particularly striking given that anti-communist rhetoric was an important part of former President Ronald Reagan s closing message in his 1976 North Carolina primary win, keeping Reagan s political hopes alive for 1980 and of Republican Sen. Jesse Helms entire career.
And he isn t offering solutions to some of the big issues his party must address -- including health care. In fact, after four years as president, he has not been able to offer any real specifics on health care, much less pass a law to prevent a government takeover of health care and provide greater patient choice, control and affordability -- health care principles conservatives should rally behind.
Despite all of this, Trump maintains solid support among the Republican base -- a stark contrast to then-nominee Trump s 2016 experience. Visiting the state a few times before that election, I saw few materials and no enthusiasm for Trump at my hometown GOP headquarters in Winston-Salem. At two political rallies for down ballot races, candidate speeches in the days after the Access Hollywood tape did their best to avoid mention of Trump altogether.
And yet, four years later, Trump is in a dead heat with Biden -- and North Carolinian Republicans seem eager to get him reelected.
Three factors could determine if GOP enthusiasm is enough to help Trump win my home state a second time around.
1. The state s population is growing.
North Carolina has outpaced growth in the rest of country over the past 30 years, going from 6.7 million to 10.4 million residents. Much of that growth has been in the suburban areas outside of Charlotte, like Matthews, whose population has doubled since 1990, and Raleigh suburb Cary, which some joke stands for "Containment Area of Relocated Yankees" and whose population has quadrupled in that same time.Places with rapidly growing populations are trending more and more Democratic, while rural areas are trending more Republican. It s a trend we re seeing nationwide -- and has become more and more pronounced in North Carolina over the last generation.
These changes influence where candidates campaign -- or where campaigning may be most effective.
And, by and large, the campaigns are going to different places.
North Carolina campaigns used to almost exclusively battle over the eastern part of the state -- in mid-sized and small towns east of Interstate 95, where tobacco farming reigned supreme. For decades, Republican hopes were pinned to winning over enough of the eastern "Jesse-crats" -- conservative Democrats who would hand Republicans, like Helms, victories.
The east is still important, which is why in recent days Trump visited Greenville and Vice President Mike Pence visited Selma. And when the Trump campaign is not in the east, it s focusing its effort on other rural communities, where it has traditionally succeeded in running up high margins, or GOP strongholds.
The Biden campaign has a different plan. Stopping in cities or nearby suburbs, Biden is pinning hopes on those new to the state, while also engaging African-Americans, including the state s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which were turnout machines for former President Barack Obama, but did not have the same enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton. Expect an Obama appearance in the state to help push Biden over the finish line.
2. Whither the undecided voter?
An ABC/Washington Post poll earlier this week shows not only Biden leading the race by a mere point, but also that only 3% of voters appear undecided.This makes voter identification and turnout all the more critical for both campaigns, as there just aren t that many undecided, or pursuable, voters out there.
For Trump, his campaign is much better funded and staffed than in 2016, when county party chairs often did not hear from a short-staffed, disorganized campaign. Given Trump s 3.7-point margin last time, having a better funded, more robust team should, in theory, give Trump a significant advantage.
But this is no normal political environment -- with a raging pandemic and the increasing economic uncertainty it has brought. And Biden has a key difference with Hillary Clinton. Namely, that he is not her.
3. Pro-Trump vs. Anti-Clinton
In 2016, Clinton put together an impressive team in the state, devoting more people and resources than the Trump campaign even tried to do. It should have put her over the top, but voters just did not like her.
That unpopularity had a long and deep history -- the all-Southern Bill Clinton/Al Gore ticket never carried the state, and Hillary Clinton was a GOP target throughout the 1990s.
National and local headlines were brutal. "A record number of voters now dislike Hillary Clinton," an August 2016 Washington Post article read. One month earlier, Slate profiled individual voters who loathed Clinton, including a Raleigh voter, in a piece headlined, "The Hillary Haters."
Joe Biden does not have that baggage.
A June 2016 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton s favorability 22 points underwater, with 33% positive and a massive 55% negative. Four years later, the June 2020 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Biden with only a 38% negative rating. And given the lightning road that Clinton had been for years, it s reasonable to conclude the disdain for Clinton was not just larger, but more intense.
A good example of this? My father, who was a registered independent in North Carolina. The last time I visited my father before he passed away was just before the 2016 election. In our conversation, he told me he voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary (North Carolina independents may vote in either party s primary) and then Trump in the general election. Why? So, he could vote against Clinton twice."But I sure wish Joe Biden were running," he said.
North Carolina became a true battleground when Obama s campaign caught everyone, including a lethargic North Carolina Republican Party, by surprise. Many dismissed it as fluke sure to go Republicans in 2012. It did, but just by over 2 points. Trump s 3.7-point win was no landslide.
As a wounded incumbent who carried the state as much because of who he wasn t -- Clinton -- than who he was, Trump faces perhaps his toughest challenge in the Tar Heel state now. The result may come down to who makes the buzzer-beater shot to win.