Fresh off his nomination and three days before her own, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton will visit North Carolina this week, returning to a battleground where the fighting so far has been one-sided.
The Clinton campaign already has run 10 different TV ads in the state. With allies such as Priorities USA Action, it’s spent or reserved more than $20 million in TV time. The Trump campaign has yet to air an ad.
While Clinton has dozens of staffers on the ground, the Trump campaign is just gearing up. The pattern is the same across the country.
Clinton and super PAC allies have spent more than $290 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Trump and his allies have spent $75 million. And even GOP strategists say Clinton has a stronger ground game.
But Republicans say they’re not worried about their unconventional candidate, especially in an unpredictable year.
“They will never take on a normal political posture, but they have a formula that works for them,” said Robin Hayes, chairman of the state Republican Party.
Despite the spending disparity, polls show the candidates virtually tied in North Carolina. Clinton enjoys a 2-point advantage in the state, well within the margin of error, according to Real Clear Politics’ polling average.
“It has amazed me that the poll numbers have held steady,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “But I think it’s because each candidate has their bases locked in.”
This month, one highly regarded analyst of presidential races, The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, shaded 49 states on its electoral map different shades of either blue (tilt to or safe Democratic) or red (tilt to or safe Republican). Only one state was colored yellow for “pure tossup” – North Carolina.
In a close election, Bitzer said, it’s the ground game – identifying voters and getting them to the polls – that could make the difference, and that’s where Clinton could have an advantage.
“I’m not concerned right now,” said state Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County, an early Trump supporter. “I know the Republican Party and the grass-roots folks will come together because we know the future of our country is at stake. We’re not going to let secular progressives ruin (it).”
But relying on the national and state GOP – rather than his own North Carolina organization – to register voters and get them to the polls could be a gamble for Trump. In the end, the N.C. Republican Party may be tempted, for example, to focus its energy on re-electing Gov. Pat McCrory.
Trump is scheduled to be in Winston-Salem. Both candidates are coming to Charlotte for the national VFW convention. Clinton comes Monday, Trump on Tuesday. It will mark their third visit to North Carolina in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Clinton, who announced Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate Friday, made her first joint appearance with President Barack Obama at a rally in Charlotte. Trump gathered his supporters that same night in Raleigh.
The visits underscore the importance of the state which narrowly went Democratic in 2008 and narrowly Republican four years later.
In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal this week, GOP strategist Karl Rove wrote, “Trump … must focus on defending North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes.
“The state is experiencing an influx of white, college-educated professionals, an element of the GOP coalition that is skeptical of Mr. Trump.”
North Carolina is indeed a changing state, with new voters moving here in droves. The state’s population reached 10 million last year – making it the country’s ninth most-populous state – by adding an average of 281 people every day in 2015, according to the U.S. Census.
In the state’s rapidly growing cities, including Charlotte and Raleigh, Democrats have been rolling up big vote margins. The state’s small towns and rural areas, which are missing out on much of the population and economic growth, have become reliably Republican.
The real battleground this year in this swing state may be the suburbs. Both campaigns are especially reaching out to moderate woman voters who live there.
Clinton campaign spokesman Andrew Bates says Clinton is optimistic about North Carolina, particularly after the rally with Obama. Clinton will hold a second event Monday in Charlotte with campaign volunteers.
“While voters continue to be alienated by the divisive candidacy of Donald Trump, our grass-roots organizers are mobilized in every region of the state and recruiting volunteers and registering North Carolinians to vote,” he said. “The stakes are high this election, and we are committed to earning the support of every voter who believes in Hillary Clinton's vision …”
Republicans are confident that resources will balance out.
Luther Snyder of Raleigh, a member of Trump’s North Carolina steering committee, said he’s confident that the ground game will come with help from the state and national Republican parties and that his candidate will win.
“Hillary Clinton’s spent a lot of money; Trump hasn’t,” he said. “(But) he’s still got the brand.”
Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.