Never before has North Carolina played such a pivotal role in American politics.
With pollsters and pundits calling it the key battleground state of 2016, it’s been in the national spotlight for months. And Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have visited North Carolina so often – along with their running mates and surrogate campaigners – that you’d think they were running for governor, not for president.
Also national news: The race for N.C. governor and the contest for one of the state’s seats in the U.S. Senate are both still considered tossups.
“The amount of attention North Carolina is getting is mind-blowing,” said James McCann, who braved a long line and chilly temperatures Saturday to vote early at the University City Regional Library. “The dynamics are changing drastically.”
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Like in other states, many North Carolina voters are not thrilled with the choice between Clinton and Trump. And yet, early and absentee voters in 2016 have set a new state record by casting more than 3 million ballots before Election Day on Tuesday. In 2012, the total was about 2.8 million.
“I voted for my future and, more importantly, my children’s future,” said Ronell Parker, 49, a U.S. postal inspector in Charlotte who brought his 14-year-old son with him Saturday to vote early. “(The campaign) has been uncharacteristically dirty. It’s been bad. But it’s crucial that we all get out and vote.”
The signs of political ascendance for this purple state that is changing so quickly – politically and demographically – are everywhere:
▪ Its 15 electoral votes are likely essential to Trump’s hopes of winning the White House – and to Clinton’s hopes of blocking him.
▪ The race between Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and Democrat Deborah Ross could determine which party controls the Senate, and with it the power to confirm Supreme Court justices.
▪ And the contest between GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is a referendum on the direction of the state – and controversial House Bill 2 – as well as one of the nation’s most watched gubernatorial races.
“There’s no other state that has three really critical races like that,” said veteran columnist Al Hunt of Bloomberg View.
Razor-thin margins separate candidates in all three races, with polls showing each within the margin of error.
Not only has the campaign marked the emergence of North Carolina into what one pundit called 2016’s “super battleground state,” it will also measure the political effect of the state’s changing demographics.
“It’s a watershed moment.” said William Ferris, a historian at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We will look back on this as a moment when the scales begin to change.”
Democrats see the election as a turning point, a rapidly urbanizing state where the influx of young people and outsiders is having a moderating effect on a traditionally conservative state. No Republican has won the White House without North Carolina since 1956.
“North Carolina is key … to helping move this part of America forward,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights figure, said about the South during a stop in Charlotte last week. “As North Carolina goes, other (states) will follow.”
Republicans, whose presidential candidates used to carry North Carolina without much sweat, say the state is just now more competitive. Conservative John Hood, president of the Pope Foundation, warns about drawing too many conclusions from an election that has see-sawed.
“Saying 2016 is some tipping-point year that tells us something permanent about North Carolina politics is overselling the point a lot,” Hood said. “Drawing sweeping conclusions about a series of very close races is fraught with peril.”
Whichever way North Carolina goes this year in the presidential race, William and Asia Frank, who moved to Charlotte from New York City six months ago, said they will feel like their votes really matter this time because they now live in a swing state.
“It now actually feels like we could make a real difference,” said Asia, who’s 27 and an office manager. “With New York always being (Democratic) blue, we’d vote and (a Democratic victory) was going to happen anyway.”
A political parade
To judge which states presidential candidates consider most important, check out their schedules. Trump and Clinton and the celebrities, politically allies and family members promoting their candidacies have virtually camped out in North Carolina.
Trump, who rallied North Carolina supporters Thursday in Concord and Selma, appeared in Wilmington Saturday and will be in Raleigh on Monday, the day before the election. It will be his 13th visit overall.
Clinton campaigned Thursday in Raleigh and in Pitt County. It was the third time she and Trump had appeared in the state on the same day and her 10th trip to North Carolina. She returns to North Carolina Monday for a midnight rally in Raleigh.
Both campaigns were joined by a parade of surrogates. Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, campaigned Friday in Greenville and is scheduled to be in Hickory on Sunday. Trump’s daughter Ivanka appeared in Charlotte Wednesday, as did the “Women for Trump” bus tour. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was also expected to visit Charlotte this weekend to boost Trump’s chances in the state.
On Monday, Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, will make campaign stops in Charlotte and Wilmington. President Barack Obama visited North Carolina two days last week to stump for Clinton. His Friday night rally at Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion, in which he urged people to vote early for Clinton, drew more than 8,500 supporters. Other recent Democratic surrogates included not only Lewis but Chelsea Clinton, Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
The Clinton campaign has even brought in performers, staging a Sunday concert in Charlotte headlined by Jon Bon Jovi and getting singer-songwriter James Taylor to drop in on campaign field offices in Statesville and Hickory.
Thanks to a barrage of TV ads, candidates are regularly in our living rooms.
More than 56,000 ads on the presidential race have aired in North Carolina since June 12, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG. Clinton and her allies have aired about 44,000 of them, more than 3 1/2 times as many as the 12,000 by Trump and his supporters.
Another 79,000 ads have aired in statewide races through October. Most were in what has been the most expensive gubernatorial race in state history.
And small armies of volunteers from organized groups such as the National Right to Life are still contacting thousands of N.C. voters. State and national leaders in the Religious Right sought to energize conservative Christian voters with a “Values Bus Tour” around North Carolina.
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Charlotte Pastor Mark Harris of First Baptist Church were among those speaking in support of House Bill 2 – the law that limited LGBT protections – and GOP candidates on the three-day tour. It started Wednesday in Charlotte and ended in Wilmington and Whiteville on Friday.
On the Democratic side, the Human Rights Campaign – the nation’s largest civil rights group for LGBT persons – held an early vote rally at the Hal Marshall Annex in uptown Charlotte and an event Saturday afternoon with Chelsea Clinton.
North Carolina hasn’t always been a national battleground.
In 2008 Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state since Jimmy Carter did in 1976. And Obama did so by just 14,000 votes. In 2012, he lost to Republican Mitt Romney by one of the closest margins in the country.
Obama also showed the importance of early voting. In 2008, he lost North Carolina’s Election Day voting to Republican John McCain but captured the early and absentee votes by over 300,000.
That’s why both campaigns are putting a premium on early votes in 2016.
More than 3 million North Carolinians have voted early this year. The final count is expected to be finished Sunday.
Democrats cast more early votes than any other group, but have not caught up to their 2012 numbers. Republicans, on the other hand, were running 11 percent above their 2012 performance, with nearly 100,000 more votes. Republicans credited the increase to efforts aimed at boosting GOP registration since 2012.
But it is unaffiliated voters – who nearly match Republicans in registration – who have seen their early voting numbers jump the most: up 38 percent from four years ago.
Who are they?
An analysis by Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill found that they tend to be younger. The median age of unaffiliated voters is 43. It’s 52 for voters registered with a party. And more than half first registered in North Carolina in 2010 or later.
They’re also diverse: Just over half of Asian-Americans registered to vote in North Carolina are unaffiliated, and 41 percent of Hispanic voters in the state are.
And while only 24 percent of North Carolina-born voters are registered unaffiliated, 35 percent of those born outside the state are.
African-American early turnout was also down 11 percent compared with 2012 as of Saturday afternoon. That’s a concern for Democrats.
“There’s certainly been a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton as compared to Barack Obama, either in 2008 or 2012,” said political scientist Kerry Haynie of Duke University. “I haven’t felt that buzz about Clinton among black voters.”
That was why Democrats such as Obama and John Lewis came to North Carolina last week.
“The president’s legacy is on the ballot,” Lewis told the Observer. “Everything he stood for … is on the ballot.”
Lines were so long at many early voting sites Saturday that former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, called board members at the State Broad of Elections to urge them to allow local election boards to extend the deadline from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
But the state board said in a Saturday news release that all voters in line at early voting sites when the polls close were able to cast ballots. Several counties do have hours that extend past 1 p.m.
The state board also announced that, through early Saturday afternoon, 44 percent of the state’s registered voters had already cast ballots.
Of the 3 million-plus total for this year, 2.9 million voters had cast ballots during the 17-day in-person early voting period. That’s a 13.4 percent increase over the entire 2012 early voting period. Other early votes include mail-in absentee ballots.
As they surveyed the long line Saturday at University City Regional Library, voters on both sides in the presidential election said they were heartened by such a healthy show of democracy in North Carolina.
“I am very encouraged,” said Arlene Fisher, 62, who wants to keep “Mr. T,” her nickname for Trump, out of the White House.
And McCann, who said he had ruled out voting for “Killary,” his nickname for Clinton, said the national media will note the turnout in the state.
“It’s a lot of attention for North Carolina.”
Staff writer Ronnie Glassberg contributed.