North Carolina is wholly up for grabs in the 2020 United States presidential race, and the state’s rapidly growing population of voters who eschew party affiliation could help swing the outcome of the national election.
“There’s no doubt that North Carolina is a key state – perhaps the key state that will determine who holds the White House,” said Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.
Losing North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes would drastically narrow the path to victory for US President Donald Trump, making the state one of a handful that the campaign of challenger Joe Biden is focusing on to shore up the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win. State polls show Republican Trump and Democratic former Vice President Biden facing a statistical tie, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
Since 1972, only two Democratic presidential candidates have won in North Carolina: Jimmy Carter, a southerner from neighbouring Georgia, in 1980; and Barack Obama, in 2008. But that track record is deceiving. Despite more Republican victories, the last three presidential contests in North Carolina have come down to only a few percentage points. Statewide elections regularly swing between the parties.
Trump won the state in 2016, inching past Hillary Clinton, 49.8 percent to 46.2 percent. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney beat then-President Obama by just two percentage points, and in 2008, Obama squeaked by John McCain by just over 14,000 votes.
“We are a perfectly balanced swing state,” said John Davis, a veteran North Carolina political analyst and founding editor of the Almanac of North Carolina Politics. “No one has a structural advantage. You have to be very competitive to win in North Carolina, and you have to be able to raise a lot of money.”
The rise of the ‘unaffiliated’ voter
North Carolina is a diverse and multi-faceted state that is difficult for campaigns to pin down on any one level. The state’s borders stretch westward from the Atlantic Ocean 800km (497 miles) deep into the rural Appalachian mountain range. Charlotte, the state’s largest city, is an economic powerhouse and home to Fortune 500 corporations like Bank of America and the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. In the north, the state’s “Research Triangle” boasts three major universities, hospitals and industries with thousands of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“North Carolina is the story of the country,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a former executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. “The metropolitan areas are heavily Democratic, the rural areas are heavily Republican, and you fight it out in the suburbs.”
Part of the change has to do with a massive population boom in the past few years that has increased the number of potential voters who do not identify with either party.
Heading into Election Day, there are more registered Democrats (2.5 million) than Republicans (2.1 million). But a full one-third of voters in the state (2.4 million) are not registered with a political party. These independents are North Carolina’s fastest-growing group, which makes for a massive swath of people who could be up for grabs.
“These unaffiliated voters may still have party allegiances, but they may feel less moored to a single party than a registered Democrat or Republican,” said Cooper.
In a nod to North Carolina’s importance, the Republican Party held its convention in Charlotte, although the gathering was scaled back and its speeches moved to Washington, DC, due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, possibly blunting its impact.
In the sprint to Election Day following the convention, the president and his allies have heaped attention on the state by hosting many rallies and speeches and by deploying an army of volunteers for in-person get-out-the-vote efforts. In September, Trump held an indoor rally in Winston-Salem, despite state restrictions on large gatherings during the pandemic. He held another rally in Fayetteville on September 19. The campaign launched a blitz of anti-Biden ads in the state in August.
Democrats know that victory in North Carolina could serve as a critical arrow in Biden’s quiver and potentially halt Trump’s hopes for re-election. Biden has opted against large, in-person rallies to avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19. Biden’s campaign is not even relying on traditional get-out-the-vote campaign strategies like door-knocking and live voter-to-voter interactions. Instead, his campaign is making its case through television and digital advertising channels. Biden has outspent Trump on television ads, according to ABC News, spending $65m to air spots in battleground states, including North Carolina.
Black voters crucial to Biden’s success
Statewide, North Carolina’s Black population of 22.2 percent is higher than that of other contentious battleground states, and a high turnout could help give Biden an edge. Polls consistently show that around 9-in-10 Black Americans overwhelmingly back Biden. The Biden campaign released a national campaign advertisement filmed in the state that focuses on Black voters, but Trump is not ceding those voters to Biden, running his own advertisements that target them.
A surge in the number of Black voters helped push Obama to victory in 2008. To win, Biden’s campaign must try to match the high level of turnout seen in 2008, experts said.
“They must have it if they’re going to carry North Carolina. That’s key,” Kerry Haynie, a professor of political science at Duke University who specialises in the intersection of race and politics, told The Charlotte Observer.
A shift to mail-in voting
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way many people will participate in this year’s election. It has already prompted thousands of people to vote by mail instead of risking a trip to a crowded polling station.
North Carolina was the first state to start sending mail-in ballots to voters in early September. As of this writing, nearly 950,000 North Carolina voters have requested mail-in ballots, compared to just 75,000 this time four years ago.
Trump has criticised mail-in voting, and even suggested that supporters in North Carolina try to vote twice. At a rally in September, Trump told supporters to visit polls on Election Day even if they already voted by mail, just to make sure their mail-in ballots were counted. Voting twice, of course, is illegal, and state officials urged people not to follow the president’s advice.
North Carolina election officials provided a portal for voters to check to see if their ballots had been received, so there would not be any question of whether the ballots were lost in the mail or uncounted.
So far, mail-in ballot requests from registered Democrats heavily outweigh those of Republicans. It’s too early to say if the spread suggests more voter enthusiasm for Biden’s supporters or if it’s a sign that Trump supporters are more comfortable voting in person. Of course, it could be both. And we won’t know the answer until Election Day.