September 30, 2016
On September 28th, the day after her first presidential debate with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton held a rally in Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, where she ripped into Mr Trump’s “dangerously incoherent,” performance. Days earlier, the Democratic nominee had chosen Greensboro, one of the state’s largest cities, for another important appearance: Her first rally after a few days off the trail with pneumonia. As she faces a tightening race, Mrs Clinton is stepping up her efforts in North Carolina—where polls put her neck-and-neck with Mr Trump—in the hope that it will smooth her path to the White House in November.
For Mr Trump, the stakes in the Tar Heel state, are even higher. He has spent a lot of time in North Carolina and in recent weeks his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, a native, has been helping open Trump offices here. Mrs Clinton’s campaign was up and running in the state early on in the campaign, opening dozens of field offices and airing adverts. Mr Trump’s campaign has downplayed his campaign’s relative bricks-and-mortar absence, claiming that the election will be won or lost in the final weeks.
Many pundits believe that Mr Trump must defeat Mrs Clinton in North Carolina, which has 15 electoral votes, or face almost certain defeat on November 8th. No Republican presidential candidate has lost North Carolina and won the White House since Dwight Eisenhower pulled off that feat in 1956. "I've studied just about every electoral path and if you take the margins of victories for each state in '08 and '12 and line them up, I don't see a path for Trump to win without North Carolina in his column," said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
Republicans control the legislature and the governorship of North Carolina, the nation's ninth most populous state, which has more than 10 million people and 6.7 million registered voters. Only twice in the past 10 presidential elections has it backed the Democratic presidential nominee. The last time was in 2008, when Barack Obama managed to win it after a hard fought local campaign, with his closest margin that year. When he lost it four years later to Mitt Romney, it was the closest of his losses.
But Mrs Clinton now appears to have a chance of taking North Carolina back again. Demographic shifts—in particular a surging young population in cities like Raleigh and Charlotte, and their suburbs, which are faring well economically—should benefit her. Many such newcomers are well educated and tend to be conservative on fiscal issues but more liberal socially. And some voters in these areas might be put off by controversial laws passed by the Republican legislature, including a voter ID requirement—which has since been struck down —and a bill which requires transgender individuals to use bathrooms corresponding with the gender on their birth certificates, rather than their gender identity, and also prohibits municipalities from enacting special protections for the LGBT community.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, will play to the other side of the state’s growing rural-urban divide. As some cities have boomed, many rural areas, battered by losses of manufacturing plants and textile mills, have been left behind. Republicans often win in small towns and rural areas, while Democrats roll up big margins in the cities, where Democratic and minority voters wield much power. If Mr Trump wins in North Carolina, it will largely be on the backs of conservative, rural voters, who often do not have a college education. In the presidential primary, held in North Carolina in March, Mr Trump held off Ted Cruz in part by doing so well in rural parts of the state. But he also needs to garner a good share of votes in the suburbs of large cities like Raleigh and Charlotte, where Mr Romney did well in 2012.
For Mrs Clinton, the biggest test will be trying to copy Mr Obama’s success in 2012 among African-American voters. It is not clear whether the killing of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, by police earlier this month, which led to sometimes violent protests, will act to her advantage or that of Mr Trump, who casts himself as a law and order candidate. But the issue will be fresh in voters’ minds when early voting begins here on October 20th. Mrs Clinton would also greatly increase her chances by peeling off independent and Republican voters in the suburbs. Her campaign has also launched efforts to increase turnout among the state’s Latino population.
North Carolina also is the setting for two hotly contested races down the ballot, including among the most competitive gubernatorial and Senate races in the country. Pat McCrory, the Republican governor, is lagging behind his Democratic challenger, attorney general Roy Cooper. The Senate race also looks competitive, with Deborah Ross, a little known former state legislator, creeping up behind senator Richard Burr, the Republican incumbent.
"We've got a national race that's very tight and we're a microcosm of what's happening nationally," said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "And we've got 15 electoral votes."
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