DAVIDSON, N.C. — Listen to analysts, candidates and operatives from both major parties in North Carolina, and what emerges is a specific image of a decisive voter. She’s white, college-educated, unaffiliated and moved to a close-in suburb of Charlotte or Raleigh in the last decade or two — and as Election Day looms, she’s still making up her mind.
“They break late,” said local Republican consultant Paul Shumaker.
They are, in short, the “swingiest” voters in this, “the swingiest of the swing states,” in the words of Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University — a state that could determine the outcome of the presidential race (with Donald Trump and Joe Biden locked in a tight clash), and the balance of the United States Senate (with Cal Cunningham threatening to topple Republican incumbent Thom Tillis), and has on its docket a topflight gubernatorial tilt to boot (with Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to this point fending off a challenge from Dan Forest). The packed slate makes North Carolina the only big state this year with such a trio of pivotal contests.
“We consider this,” said Michael Whatley, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, “to be the eye of the hurricane politically.”
North Carolina’s volatile political terrain is a function of its surprising size, variety and growth. It stretches from the sand and the palms of the Southeast to the mountains of Appalachia in the Northwest, from Murphy to Manteo, or so goes the saw, some 600 miles across with the banking and financial center of Charlotte and the knowledge-worker hubs of the Research Triangle in between. And the state’s relentless growth — population nearing 11 million, and more than 1.3 million new registered voters just since 2016 — is only intensifying a swing-state status that’s been developing for at least a decade and a half.
In 2004, George W. Bush, the Republican president vying for a second term, won the state by 13 percent — while Mike Easley, a Democrat, became the governor by winning by the same margin. In 2008, and again in 2012, North Carolina made for the second-closest count in the presidential tallies — flipping party preferences, of course, going from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney. And in 2016, when Trump won here, by 3.6 percent, so did Cooper, albeit by barely more than 10,000 votes. Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, four picked Trump — and also Cooper.
Now, four years later, of the 7,040,308 registered voters as of last month, 36 percent are Democrats and 30 percent are Republicans, but an ascendant 33 percent are unaffiliated — the fastest-growing group, clustered in the fastest-growing suburbs. And of that 33 percent, Shumaker, a Tillis consultant, wrote in a recent memo to donors, 30 percent are “behavioral Republicans,” 30 percent are “behavioral Democrats,” and the remaining 40 percent are “pure swing voters.” These, both sides agree, are the voters that are most up for grabs — in the places that are most up for grabs.
“The urban ring around Charlotte,” said Cunningham, the Democratic Senate candidate, getting even more specific. “That is going to decide probably the presidential race and possibly the outcome of the United States Senate. And it’s ground zero for a marquee governor’s race.”
In 2016, dovetailing with national trends, Trump won 59 percent in the state’s rural areas and 65 percent in its outer suburbs and exurbs, and Clinton won 66 percent in the cities. In that “urban ring” Cunningham referenced, though, those close-in suburbs, Clinton won 49 percent of the vote and Trump won 48 — making it what Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer calls North Carolina’s only true “coin-toss.”
The key within the key, said Shumaker: “Suburban-based, white, female independents. Republicans don’t have to win them overwhelmingly. We can break even, or just lose them, but we can’t lose them overwhelmingly.”
But that’s what’s happening, according to Morgan Jackson, a Raleigh-based Democratic strategist working for the Cunningham and Cooper campaigns. “They were growing more Democratic, based on urbanization period,” he said. “In the age of Trump, that’s been on steroids.” To bolster his point, Jackson cited the following: “Roy Cooper won 28 counties by 522,000 votes. He lost 72 counties by 512,000 votes,” he said. “But since November of 2016, 60 percent of all new registrations have come from the 28 counties that Roy Cooper won.”
On account of the pandemic, more than 600,000 North Carolinians have requested mail-in absentee ballots that started to get sent out the first week of September, and the rush has been driven hugely disproportionately by Democrats and unaffiliated voters — more than 80 percent of those requests, “which is kind of mindboggling,” said Meredith Cuomo, the executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
Positioned to benefit, potentially, from these currents are Biden, Cunningham and Cooper, in some sense cut from similar cloth—generally low-key and mild-mannered, moderate in mien and (they hope) appealing enough to enough voters on a wide enough range on the ideological scale.
Cunningham, perhaps in particular, is a 47-year-old attorney and father of two and former state senator who’s an Iraq and Afghanistan JAG vet who hails from what’s known by some as “the barbecue capital of the world.”
Still, GOP strategists here see an opportunity in the uptick in the unrest around the country stemming from protests for racial justice, hoping this election’s animating themes shift away from the coronavirus and attendant issues of education, public health and the health of the economy and more toward the Trump-propelled focus on “safety” in the suburbs and “law and order” and efforts to paint Democrats of all stripes and sorts as tools of “the radical left.”
Republicans say the message is resonating. “Riots and looting and vandalism,” said Whatley, the state GOP chair. “That’s turning into a tier-one issue for us.”
Democrats dismiss this notion. “This is Donald Trump’s America currently that we’re living in,” said L.T. McCrimmon, who left her role as Cooper’s deputy legislative director to become the state director for the Biden campaign. “Cities are burning because he’s gaslighting folks. He’s encouraging this violence. Joe Biden’s trying to heal and unify the country.”
Early in-person voting starts October 15. Only one thing’s for sure. “We do things by pretty slim margins around here,” Cunningham said. “I’m fighting for every last vote, knowing that every last vote could be the difference.”