N.C. Democratic Party Chairwoman Patsy Keever was in Charlotte on Tuesday to promote Hillary Clinton, but she could have been speaking for Republican Donald Trump, too, when she told the fired-up crowd at the Charlotte Convention Center that “the road to the White House runs through North Carolina.”
Just a few hours after Clinton and her special guest President Barack Obama headlined the rally in Charlotte, Trump was just across the state, speaking to his own supporters at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh.
Not all states are created equal in presidential election years. And both candidates know that, in 2016, North Carolina not only offers a treasure trove of 15 electoral voters; it also has evolved into a political battleground where either side could win.
Clinton and the Democrats see a North Carolina victory as a way to poke a big hole in the Republicans’ Southern firewall and deny Trump a state no winning Republican presidential candidate has lost since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.
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For Trump, North Carolina is not only a must-win but also a chance to firm up the GOP’s electoral base in the South – long a traditional advantage in the scramble to get to 270 electoral votes.
“If Trump is to have any shot at winning the White House, he has to have North Carolina in his column,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury. “If Clinton can crack the Republicans’ Solid South, then there is little opportunity for him to compensate in the rest of the country. … He’d need a complete run of the table (in winning other battleground states).”
So, how will they go about trying to win North Carolina?
Clinton played some of her cards Tuesday by bringing Obama to Charlotte for a 40-minute full-throated endorsement of his former secretary of state.
For her to win North Carolina, Clinton must first energize African-American voters, whose big turnout in 2008 helped Obama become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“Nobody can help her (with black voters) better than Barack Obama,” said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University.
Obama’s coalition also includes liberals, urban voters, Latinos, young people and women – all of whom seemed to be among the cheering crowd Tuesday at the Convention Center.
Clinton spent much of her nearly 20-minute speech praising the president’s record and promising to build on it. She also stressed their personal ties, telling how, after Obama beat her in the battle for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, “I was proud to endorse him” and serve as his secretary of state.
Obama returned the compliments. He also tried to spotlight Clinton’s more likable side behind the scenes. And he ended his address by officially dubbing her his hoped-for successor – and asking that his past supporters go as all out for her as they did for him.
“I’m ready to pass the baton. And I know that Hillary Clinton is going to take it. And I know she can run that race,” Obama told the cheering crowd. “That’s why I need you to work just as hard to make sure that Hillary is the next president of the United States.”
The Charlotte visit was the first time Obama has campaigned with Clinton in 2016, and he appeared eager to be there. Her election as president would preserve the president’s legacy, from the health care overhaul often referred to as Obamacare to his nuclear deal with Iran to his work on behalf of the environment.
Later Tuesday in Raleigh, Trump made it clear he is intent on destroying Obama’s legacy – an appealing promise for the half of North Carolina that wants no part of a third term for the Democratic president and his liberal agenda.
Even before his arrival in Raleigh, Trump was tweeting outrage that Clinton had gotten a lift to Charlotte aboard Air Force One. Also fodder for Trump: the FBI’s decision earlier Tuesday not to recommend that charges be filed against Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
“We have a rigged system,” Trump said in Raleigh.
Political observers in the state say for Trump to win North Carolina, he will likely have to expand his support beyond those who already back him.
In North Carolina, Republicans in recent years have won in small towns and rural areas, while Democrats have rolled up big margins in the cities.
Up for grabs: the suburbs. Many voters there, including moderate-leaning women, often pull the levers for Republicans. But this year, they may need some persuading to vote for Trump.
“He has to make a signal to perhaps Republicans in the suburbs that he is not as extreme as he has made himself out to be,” Bitzer said. “And the clock is ticking.”
North Carolina is a changing state, with new voters moving into the state in droves. In fact, the state’s population reached 10 million last year – making it the country’s ninth most-populous state – by adding an average of 281 people every day in 2015, according to the U.S. Census.
Clinton’s campaign is busy reaching out to the state’s voters with TV ads and a ground operation with its headquarters in Raleigh and offices soon in Charlotte and around the state.
It remains to be seen when Trump will follow suit.
For now, polls in North Carolina give Clinton a slight edge, but her lead is within the margin of sampling error.
Taylor at N.C. State said Labor Day is traditionally the official starting point for the general election campaigns for president.
“But this year,” he said, “it looks like July 5 is a beginning with both campaigns in North Carolina.”