North Carolina is seeing more presidential campaign spending and candidate visits this year in part because it’s a must-win state for Republican Donald Trump.
The front-row seat to national politics is still a relatively new role for North Carolina, which was a solid Republican state in presidential elections until Barack Obama won a surprise victory in 2008. Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since 1976, but he then lost it to Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
This year, polls show that Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have been running neck-and-neck in North Carolina for months. As of Friday, the Real Clear Politics polling average had Clinton with just a 0.5 percent lead in the state, and some polls have given Trump a narrow lead.
The candidates and their running mates have been holding rallies here nearly every week, and their visits will likely continue to November. Last week, GOP vice presidential candidate Mike Pence held a town hall event in Raleigh, while Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine visited Guilford County. Both Clinton and Trump held rallies the previous week, and Trump will be returning for a Wilmington rally on Tuesday.
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While the Trump campaign hasn’t launched major TV advertising here yet, ads in support of Clinton have been running for weeks in the state.
“We are all-in on North Carolina,” said Michael Halle, the Clinton campaign’s director of battleground strategy and analytics. “North Carolina is a pivotal battleground in a lot of ways in getting to 270 (Electoral College votes).”
But Halle says the state doesn’t have to go blue for Clinton to win the presidency. “I don’t think I would label any battleground state as must-win,” he said. “We have lots of different paths.”
The Democrat’s campaign is focusing resources on North Carolina because a victory here “is the only path for the Trump campaign,” Halle said.
Republicans are also putting staff and resources into the state. “North Carolina is definitely important to our nominee’s path to 270,” said Kara Carter, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “That’s why the RNC has made such a significant investment in North Carolina.”
To win, Trump likely must get a majority in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania – where Obama won in the past two elections – and keep North Carolina in the Republican column. The New York Times recently reported that the Trump camp has “grown concerned” about the billionaire’s chances in North Carolina, due to its large population of African-American and college-educated white voters.
Clinton, according to longtime GOP strategist Carter Wrenn, is “going to force the campaign here a lot harder, and Trump’s going to have to respond to that.”
A ‘flyover’ state no more
Back in 2000, the presidential campaigns didn’t pay much attention to North Carolina, then considered a “flyover” state between the battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida.
Republican George W. Bush got 56 percent of the vote here during a close election nationally, following a longstanding trend of voters picking GOP presidential candidates while electing Democrats at the state level.
Democrat Al Gore’s campaign “virtually ignored” the state, according to a News & Observer story at the time.
But by 2008, North Carolina’s population added more than a million people, many of them moving from states further north to settle in urban areas like Raleigh and Charlotte. The state’s population also became more ethnically diverse.
Those numbers prompted a big push from the Obama campaign, which opened 60 field offices across the state and sent in the candidates and top surrogates. Republican John McCain followed suit, but his campaign didn’t invest as heavily in the state.
Obama scored a narrow North Carolina victory, with 49.7 percent of the vote to 49.4 percent for McCain. The Democrat won a majority in Wake and Mecklenburg counties where Bush won in 2000.
The work that the Obama campaign put into the state really has transformed North Carolina.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor, Catawba College, Salisbury
Obama’s good fortune in the state didn’t continue in 2012, due in part to a high unemployment rate. Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign was so confident by October that they moved staffers from North Carolina to other states in the final weeks, and he finished with 50.4 percent of the vote.
Obama didn’t visit as frequently in 2012, instead sending surrogates like his wife, Michelle. But both campaigns spent about $30 million in TV ads in the state between May and October.
“The work that the Obama campaign put into the state really has transformed North Carolina,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. “The question I have for this year is, does that trend hold? And by all accounts, it looks like it does.”
More spending this time
Halle said he expects the campaigns will spend more heavily in North Carolina this year. “Having been there in ’08 and ’12, it is going to be better funded than in both of those cycles,” he said.
Demographic changes in the state since 2008 also could prove favorable to Democrats. The state’s population has now surpassed 10 million, up from 8 million in 2000. Of that number, 22 percent are African-American and 9 percent are Latino, according to U.S. Census data.
A federal court recently struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law, ruling that it makes it harder for minorities to vote. At his Greensboro rally, Kaine said the ruling could result in 100,000 more voters participating in November. And Halle said that “Hillary will do better the more people that vote.”
Trump “is revealing weakness in states like Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State. “These are places where there is a significant minority population, and that are plugged into the global economy – and are fretful of his positions on issues like trade.”
Much of the state’s population growth has come in its politically moderate suburbs, where subdivisions and strip malls have sprouted up like weeds.
While urban areas favor Clinton and rural areas back Trump, “I think there’s a lot of suburbs that are going to be points of key conflict,” said Steven Greene, an N.C. State political scientist. “The Clinton campaign sees a real opportunity to pick up college educated white voters who’ve been shown in polls to not like Donald Trump.”
Clinton’s campaign has already signed up 2,000 volunteers in the state, and it’s organizing frequent voter registration drives, Halle said. He declined to provide the number of paid staff members but said it’s significantly larger than the Trump campaign’s operation.
The campaign’s leadership is heavy on political operatives with North Carolina ties. State Director Troy Clair has been a chief of staff for U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield and the Congressional Black Caucus. Clinton’s senior adviser in the state, Morgan Jackson, is a longtime political strategist who works with a host of Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper.
The Clinton campaign is partnering closely with the N.C. Democratic Party, and some staffers are using office space in the party’s downtown Raleigh headquarters. That’s a change from 2014, when U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign snubbed a bitterly divided state party and instead ran a coordinated campaign with the Wake County Democratic Party.
“We feel like they’ve turned things around and things in the state party are going well,” Halle said, adding that avoiding the party “wasn’t even considered this time.”
The Trump campaign organization has been less visible in North Carolina outside the candidate’s signature rallies. Last week, the campaign rebooted its operation in the state, replacing state director Earl Phillip with Jason Simmons, a former campaign staffer for Romney and Gov. Pat McCrory.
Trump is also adding a state-based communications team, something he’s lacked while two Clinton North Carolina spokesmen have been working with local media for months.
N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said the new leadership has “got to get them more organized than they are.”
Ground game matters
But Carter said the RNC is providing Trump with resources the Democrats lack: A campaign infrastructure that was in place long before the primaries wrapped up.
“Traditionally the RNC has built out a field operation and a ground game for our candidates,” Carter said. “You can’t parachute into an election a few months or a few weeks before and expect to win.”
The RNC’s state operation has been in the works since 2013, and it used the 2014 Senate race as a test run. Now it has 50 paid staffers and an additional 200 unpaid “team members” who have committed to weekly campaign work.
“We have more staff on the ground than we’ve ever had before,” Carter said. In addition to registering voters, the RNC is using data to identify potential Republican voters and go door-to-door to speak with them. Obama’s campaigns were known for a similar strategy.
The sleeper state this year isn’t Georgia or Arizona or Utah but ... North Carolina.
Statistician Nate Silver
Even with social media and online news making political information more accessible than ever, experts say the traditional “ground game” political strategies still work.
“In these highly polarized times, the key to winning elections is getting your supporters out to vote,” Greene said. “It’s not changing minds. Having those people on the ground making phone calls and going door-to-door is essential for high turnout.”
But while both parties are promoting their candidates on the streets, the Clinton campaign has a head start in TV advertising. Coupled with pro-Clinton Super PACs, they’ve already spent or reserved more than $20 million in ads in the state, some of which hit Trump on controversial statements he’s made.
Trump hasn’t run a single TV ad in North Carolina since the March primary, although the National Rifle Association has aired some anti-Clinton commercials here, records show. That could change soon: Trump has stepped up his fundraising efforts nationally, and on Friday, National Journal reported that his campaign has requested TV ad rates in 17 states, including North Carolina.
Trump has said he’s been able to spread his message effectively through news coverage. But Wrenn says a candidate can’t rely on rallies alone.
Unlike free news coverage, ads mean “the candidate has control over the message – if he wants to talk about ISIS, he can talk about it in his ads,” Wrenn said. “The fact that Trump’s not on TV and Hillary’s on TV heavily is a factor.”
Most political analysts are now rating North Carolina as a toss-up. Statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website estimated Friday that Clinton has a 52 percent chance of winning the state, based on polls as well as economic and historical data.
But on Wednesday, the same metric gave Trump a 53 percent chance of winning here. Silver rates North Carolina the fifth most likely state to be the “tipping point” that decides the election.
“To me, the sleeper state this year isn’t Georgia or Arizona or Utah but ... North Carolina,” Silver tweeted last week.