2016 Elections

North Carolina Is the Real Bellwether State

Republicans and Democrats view both the presidential race and an open Senate seat as must-wins.

Bringing out the big guns.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Michelle Obama, making her first joint campaign appearance with Hillary Clinton in North Carolina on Oct. 27, suggested the state is ground zero in this election. That's routine rhetoric; it also may be true.

In the maze of color-coded maps and exit polls on Election night, North Carolina will send a resounding message. The state, which voted for Barack Obama eight years ago and for Mitt Romney in 2012, is a must-win for Donald Trump. If Clinton wins, she's probably off to a night that will resemble Obama's 2008 victory.

The Senate race is one of a half-dozen that will decide the critical question of which party controls the chamber. There's also a governor's race, mired in controversies over discrimination against gays and voting rights for minorities, with important implications for the state and perhaps the nation.

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Demographics are destiny in this purple state. In 2008, a little more than half of the voters were born in-state and Obama was defeated among that group; he won by taking those that had moved to North Carolina. This year, more than half of the electorate will be voters who've moved to the state, and a good percentage will be college-educated. Both characteristics advantage Democrats.

The Republican legislature and an acquiescent governor passed restrictions on voting in 2013. Some of these were thrown out by courts but some remain, and there is speculation the limits could depress the turnout of black voters and the young, two groups that are likely to be predominantly in the Democratic camp. In the 2012 election, when Obama didn't make an effort in the state, there was a 10 percent drop in the number of 18- to 29-year-old voters, and the black vote was down slightly. The top priority of Democrats is to reverse that this time.

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury who tracks this closely, estimates that early voting is up about 7 percent from four years ago, but so far Democrats are underperforming targets. The big jump from 2012 is among unaffiliated voters, which Bitzer says, are the "wild card" in these calculations.

Democratic strategists insist the shortfall is being remedied with a huge targeting and get-out-the-vote effort this week, aided by the personal appearances and messages from both the president and the first lady.

With a little more than a week to go, Clinton appears to be up about three to four points, though that was before the news at the end of the week that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had reopened the inquiry into her use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state.  

Democratic Attorney-General Roy Cooper is a little ahead of the incumbent governor, Pat McCrory, and the Senate contest between the moderately liberal state legislator, Deborah Ross, and the two-term incumbent conservative Republican Richard Burr, is a toss-up.

Both parties and their allied outside groups rate North Carolina a priority. Far more than $100 million will be spent on these races, and the airwaves are inundated with competing messages. This is especially important for Republicans, as the Democrats have an advantage in the ground game, identifying and turning out their voters.

Clinton is not especially popular in the state, but Trump is a pariah in Republican-leaning venues such as Cary, in the heart of the technology-driven Research Triangle, and parts of the financial sector in Charlotte.

It was no accident that the first campaign joint appearance with the first lady was at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Both politicians in the state and a recent focus group in Charlotte suggest Michelle Obama may be the most popular figure in North Carolina and elsewhere, and the most effective Trump critic.

McCrory, elected four years ago, is the former mayor of Charlotte. He espoused a pro-business agenda and was a bit to the right of center like previous Republican governors. But he was captured by the rising right-wing forces in the Republican Party and went along with the voting crackdowns, infuriating black voters. In addition, he embraced legislation that overturned local ordinances banning discrimination against gays and dictated which public bathrooms transgender people could use.

The backlash has been huge: The state has lost business, and professional and college athletics are boycotting events. It's a loser for McCrory and Republicans, who now hope that the devastation of Hurricane Matthew a few weeks ago has distracted attention.

Both the Republican and Democratic campaign committees are putting every possible resource into the Senate race; the next Democratic Senate leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, even demanded resources be moved from places such as Florida to North Carolina. Ross was not the first choice of Democrats but has turned into a decent candidate. Burr has a remarkably low profile, even though he has won two Senate elections and before that five House contests. At the Charlotte focus group of undecided and persuadable, Republican-leaning voters last week, half said they had no opinion of him.

In the last part of the 20th century, North Carolina was politically schizophrenic: it produced a couple of the most successful, progressive, pro-civil rights and education governors, Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt. The state also produced some of the most powerful, right-wing, race-baiting reactionaries, led by Jesse Helms.

On Nov. 8, the outcomes of the election will determine which side is on the ascendancy in North Carolina.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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