In North Carolina, independent early voting surged. How could that affect the outcome?

Voters waited in long lines Saturday morning at University City Regional Library for the last day of early voting, contributing to a record 3 million North Carolinians who already have voted.
Voters waited in long lines Saturday morning at University City Regional Library for the last day of early voting, contributing to a record 3 million North Carolinians who already have voted. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

A record 3 million North Carolinians already have voted in an election that’s heading to the wire with both major presidential candidates flying in for final rallies Monday – including one at midnight.

Only three states have had more early voters than North Carolina, according to a University of Florida elections project.

And one North Carolina analyst said independents, whose early voting numbers jumped, and African-Americans, whose numbers fell, could hold the key to Tuesday’s election.

“The unaffiliated and the black voters (are) probably the two key groups,” political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said Sunday.

North Carolina’s highest-profile election in years ends with a flourish Monday.

Republican Donald Trump will hold his final North Carolina rally Monday afternoon at the state fairgrounds. And Democrat Hillary Clinton will meet supporters at a midnight rally at N.C. State University.

Clinton running mate, Virginia U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, will campaign Monday in Charlotte and Wilmington.

And Sunday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the GOP vice presidential nominee, rallied hundreds of supporters in Hickory. Joined by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, he touted Trump and called on voters to “drain the swamp” of Washington. He said Clinton “literally personifies that failed establishment.”

He appealed to the crowd to make sure other Republicans stick with the party.

“Tell them with one voice … ‘It’s time to come home and elect Donald Trump the president of the United States’,” he said. “And it’s time to come home to make sure Hillary Clinton is never elected president of the United States.”

Bitzer said unaffiliated voters could be the election’s “true wildcard.”

Democratic turnout in early voting in North Carolina was slightly down from 2012 and Republicans’ was up by 13 percent. But unaffiliated turnout was up about 40 percent.

Black turnout down

By the time early voting ended Saturday afternoon, more than 3.1 million North Carolina voters had cast ballots. Only Texas, California and Florida had more, according to Florida political scientist Michael McDonald.

In North Carolina, 326,000 more voters cast early or absentee ballots this year than in 2012.

That included nearly 322,000 more white voters but almost 69,000 fewer African-Americans, according to the state elections board.

McDonald said that makes the state an aberration among three other Southern states. In Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, he said, black early voting turnout is up by at least 17,000 votes from 2012.

“North Carolina is the only state that had a decline in African-American participation in early voting,” he said Sunday. “It seems like something went awry in North Carolina.”

Because most African-Americans vote Democratic, black turnout is considered a key for Democrats. “There’s certainly been a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton as compared to Barack Obama,” Duke University political scientist Kerry Haynie said last week.

State Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat, said he’s surprised by the fall-off in black early voting.

“If the numbers hold up then what that tells me is that for African-Americans in North Carolina the political thrill is gone,” he said. “Clearly the African-Americans are here and they’re registered. But what the candidates are saying did not translate into meaningful enthusiasm for them to come out and vote.”

Urban millennials

Who are the unaffiliated voters?

Bitzer said his analysis shows that many of them are millennials and most of them live in urban counties. Thirty-eight percent are millennials or Gen-Xers under 51. Both millennials and urban voters have tended to be more Democratic, he said.

Another way to look at it, he said, is that of the more than 800,000 unaffiliated voters who cast early ballots, 44 percent also voted in the March 15 primaries. And of those, 56 percent voted in the GOP contest.

Bitzer said while unaffiliated voters could tip the balance of the election, “There’s just too much uncertainty … to make a call one way or the other, but different ways of looking at them can produce potential benefits or disadvantages to one party or the other.”

And there’s another wild card: Hispanic voters.

The number of Hispanic early voters has surged in states such as Nevada and Florida. North Carolina only has 164,000 registered Hispanic voters, but Bitzer said a third have already voted. Eighty-five percent of Hispanic voters are Democrats or unaffiliated.

Democrat German DeCastro, an Hispanic activist from Charlotte, said Latino voters have been turned off by Trump’s rhetoric, particularly about Mexico.

“It’s unbelievable how Latinos responded to his rhetoric,” he said. “It’s a godsend (for Democrats.)”

Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.