In case you’ve somehow missed the onslaught of TV ads, robo calls and mainstream news coverage over the past several months, North Carolina has become a key battleground state in this year’s presidential election. So much so that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has visited three times in the last few months, and her Republican rival Donald Trump has been here four times with a fifth visit in the works. The appearances are evidence of North Carolina’s importance in what is shaping up to be a tight race, leaving many wondering if North Carolina could be another Ohio—a state with the potential to choose the next U.S. president?
North Carolina is what many refer to as a “purple state,” oscillating between Democratic and Republican control from one election cycle to the next. While the state went narrowly to President Barack Obama in 2008, it went to the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, in 2012. North Carolina recently picked up another electoral vote, totaling 15, and reinforcing the state’s continual growth.
A look at recent polling data reflects that North Carolina is one of the most competitive states politically this year. According to Real Clear Politics, Clinton and Trump are polling head to head in North Carolina with Clinton having 45 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 43 percent. A similar picture emerges when looking at other down ballot races across the state. In the race for governor, Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper are neck in neck, with McCrory at 45 percent compared to Cooper’s 44 percent, and there is just a 3.6 percent margin in the Senate race.
Eye on the Prize
The New York Times recently reported that Trump is stepping back from a sizeable national campaign to concentrate the majority of his time and money on Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. According to the Times: “(Trump’s) advisers have become increasingly convinced that his most plausible route to the presidency, and perhaps his only realistic victory scenario, involves capturing all three of the biggest contested electoral prizes on the map, and keeping North Carolina in the Republican column.”
“The RNC has had staff on the ground in North Carolina since 2013 building a state of the art, data-driven turnout operation. There are currently almost 50 paid staffers and over 200 team leaders in communities across the state – a number that grows every day as our team members recruit and train more volunteers,” says Kara Carter, a spokesperson with the RNC. “As the only battleground state to elect Mitt Romney in 2012, all eyes are on North Carolina.”
The Clinton campaign seems to have a more aggressive ground game in place when it comes to advertising. The campaign is already airing several TV ads across the state and Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting the democrat, says it plans to spend $12 million on ads in North Carolina between now and November. In contrast, as of early July Trump’s campaign had not yet started advertising in North Carolina, and it was reported that none of the groups supporting him had secured general election advertising in the state.
However, RNC officials remain confident that Trump will win the state. “Similar to what was seen across the country, North Carolina had record turnout during our March GOP primary. That enthusiasm and excitement has continued throughout this election cycle,” says Carter. “Mr. Trump has energized North Carolina voters—something that can be seen at each of his campaign events when he visits the state.”
An Emerging Divide
Old divisions pitted liberals against conservatives; however, the new paradigm emerging is between cosmopolitan voters (likely to go for Clinton this year) versus the working class voters, who will likely vote for Trump. One key question is whether NC voters will indeed fall into these very distinctive voting blocs.
Gene Nichol, the Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill, says he sees explicit divisions within the state: “It’s easy, or even common, to think of North Carolina as a moderate state, swaying back and forth between different kinds of candidates, times and campaigns. What we are, I’m convinced, is a deeply divided state. In other words, I don’t think we have huge percentages of voters who are struggling to make up their minds. To me, that means the upcoming elections ought to be intensely focused on energizing the respective bases. Turnout and energy will likely prevail, not moderate, shifting messaging.”
So in such a tight race, what will ultimately tip the scales in North Carolina? According to Francis De Luca, president of the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute, which conducts polling among other things, it may come down to the unaffiliated voter, now the second largest voting group in the state, after Democrats. Civitas last polled the North Carolina race in late June, and the results showed Trump leading Clinton by double-digits among unaffiliated voters. “If you’re winning the unaffiliated vote outside the margin of error, that’s usually a sign pointing toward a general election win,” De Luca says.
Another factor that could play into the results is the impact that third party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein may have on election outcomes. “While Trump may have narrowed his strategy to really focus on the Tar Heel state in the remaining months ahead, Clinton could prove to have a much stronger ground game when it comes to fundraising, get-out-the-vote efforts and ad buys,” says former North Carolina State Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Orr. “Plus there is the third party candidate factor. It’s really anybody’s guess.”
The bottom line is if you think staying home on Election Day won’t matter this year, think again.
By the Numbers
2016 NC Voter Registration
2.6M Registered Democrats
2M Registered Republicans
1.9M Registered Unafilliated
22% African American