Booming suburbs boost Biden in North CarolinaOctober 22, 2020
When Barack Obama turned North Carolina blue in 2008, Democrats hoped the Obama coalition would usher in a new era of competitiveness in the state. Instead, the next decade-plus was marked largely by disappointing election results — and no more presidential wins for the party.
Twelve years later, Joe Biden is challenging for a win in North Carolina again, but the path he is carving through the state looks different than his old running mate’s. Where Obama activated Black voters, young people and peeled off just enough college-educated white women to win, Biden’s coalition looks older, whiter, more suburban and even more female.
It’s a reflection of a state in flux, where two trends have collided: huge growth in suburban counties, including at least 1 million new residents in the last decade, and a deep distaste for President Donald Trump among white college-educated voters, which the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated. As strongly as anywhere else in the country, North Carolina has seen intense party polarization based on region, with Trump consolidating and improving the GOP’s standing in rural areas but hemorrhaging support among suburban voters of all races.
That trade has worked for Trump in some states in the past. But this year, public polling averages give Biden a slight, 2-to-3 point advantage in a state Trump almost certainly must win to get reelected. Where Obama lost white voters with college degrees by 20 points in North Carolina in 2008, according to exit polls, Biden now holds hefty leads. While the huge age gap and young support that powered Obama has evened out across different generations, growing metro areas like Charlotte have tilted against the GOP.
“North Carolina will reach a tipping point the same way Virginia did, with the northern Virginia suburbs pulling it along,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist who is advising both Gov. Roy Cooper and Cal Cunningham, the Democratic Senate nominee. In recent years, Jackson noted, Virginia faded from central battleground to solidly Democratic.
“The question for 2020 is, has coronavirus and Donald Trump’s mishandling of it made that tipping point move up a lot faster?”
The path for Biden in North Carolina was already laid out by Cooper, another old-school Democratic pol who built a different coalition to go with changing times when he squeaked by GOP Gov. Pat McCory in 2016.
Cooper, the former attorney general who cuts a similar political profile as Biden, attacked McCrory for signing House Bill 2, the controversial “bathroom bill,” which effectively banned legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The law triggered enormous economic backlash and particularly alienated suburban voters who backed McCrory in 2012 but fled from him in 2016, even as Trump carried North Carolina.
State Rep. Ashton Clemmons, a Democrat who flipped her suburban Greensboro-based seat in 2018, described a “parallel between McCrory [in 2016] and Trump [in 2020],” noting that “Cooper laid out the path for Biden, and we’re all still treading that path.”
“Republican overreach and mishandling on HB2 cost the governor’s race [in 2016], and Democrats hope to use the virus as an issue to make inroads with economic conservative, suburban voters,” who also backed Cooper over McCrory, said one Republican strategist based in North Carolina.
North Carolina operatives in both parties acknowledge the closeness of the 2020 race, which is “on the knife’s edge,” according to Marc Farinella, who led Obama’s 2008 campaign in the state, or a “coin flip,” Republican consultant Carter Wrenn said.
That narrow divide means Black voters still play a critical role for Democrats, as evidenced by Biden and Kamala Harris’ recent event schedule, which has been dedicated almost exclusively to Black mobilization.
Last month, Harris rallied a small group of voters at Shaw University, a private historically-Black college, joined by the drumline and a squad of cheerleaders. Last weekend, Biden urged attendees to vote early in Durham, followed by a virtual meeting with African American faith leaders. And on Wednesday, Harris stumped in Charlotte and Asheville, urging attendees to vote early.
“This particular year, it has to be a focus because the Republican Party has made such an effort – not in a positive manner – an effort to court or depress the Black vote,” said state House Democratic Leader Robert Reives. “I think there’s always a concern [about Black enthusiasm] because there’s been such an effort to depress it.”
But local Democrats are divided on whether Biden’s strength in the suburbs could help offset a slight drop among Black voters. Obama not only won Black voters big — he drove up turnout, and Black voters represented 22 to 23 percent of the total electorate. In 2016, Black voters made up 21 percent of the vote in North Carolina, as Hillary Clinton lost the state just under 4 points.
Biden’s improvement with white voters could make up for a drop. But both parties are still obsessively watching for signs in the daily totals of early votes released by the state board of elections each morning at 5 a.m. So far, Black voters account for 22 percent of accepted absentee ballots.
However, some party operatives said they expect that number to drop off as the calendar ticks closer to Election Day, when Black voters are historically less likely to show up. And Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College, who tracks the returns, warned against drawing too many conclusions from the early vote totals because the “electoral dynamic” in 2020 is “something we’ve never seen before.”
The pandemic has also drastically changed how the Biden campaign’s is trying to flip the state, compared to what the Obama-Biden campaign did. Obama built an enormous on-the-ground field operation, registering voters and contacting low-propensity young voters and people of color, long before John McCain considered North Carolina competitive in 2008.
But in 2020, stymied by a pandemic, Biden and North Carolina Democrats are not doing much, if any, in-person door-knocking. They are confining personal contact with voters to “literature drops,” when a volunteer leaves campaign paperwork on a door knob.
“The risk, the concern, is that we may not be doing enough person-to-person communications because of Covid,” said Democratic state Rep. Graig Meyer. “If it weren’t for Covid, you’d see the largest door-to-door persuasion campaign ever in North Carolina … but we’re not doing any door-knocking.”
Meyer also noted that as much energy he’s seeing in the urban and suburban areas for Biden, a question lingers: “Do we see the same level of energy in rural and exurban counties?”
Trump’s campaign, in contrast, sunk millions into a field program in the state, “knocking on doors of persuadable voters for months” along with allied conservative groups, said Brad Crone, a consultant who’s worked for both parties. They’re “all doing aggressive voter outreach and door-to-door campaigning.”
“The Biden campaign has really had to lean on phone banking, Zoom meetings and digital organizing, and to be honest, we’ll have to wait to see how it works,” Crone added.
Patrick Sebastian, a North Carolina-based GOP consultant, called the Trump campaign’s field operation “a bright spot, for sure,” while “Democrats haven’t employed their usual robust turnout operation, and that could make all of the difference here.”
Republicans also narrowed their voter registration gap in the state, adding a net of nearly 90,000 voters from March through September of 2020. Democrats, meanwhile, have seen some erosion in their voter registration numbers, while the pool of unaffiliated voters — people declining to identify with either major party — has continued to grow steadily.
Democrats hope those unaffiliated voters prove friendly to them, and they have reason to be optimistic. Of the 190,000 net new registered voters since 2016, three-quarters of them came from Wake and Mecklenburg counties, home to Raleigh and Charlotte, exactly the type of rapidly expanding metro areas where Biden’s support has exploded — and Trump’s has taken a serious hit.