An early poll suggests that North Carolina will be a battleground state in the 2016 presidential race, especially if former First Lady Hillary Clinton ends up as the Democratic nominee.
Earlier this month, Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling released a poll showing Clinton very close among N.C. voters with several potential Republican opponents, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. PPP also surveyed other potential Democratic presidential candidates against the leading GOP hopefuls, but they didn’t fare nearly as well as Clinton here.
PPP’s poll also showed that N.C. Democrats – at least for now – overwhelmingly back Clinton as their candidate for president in two years. Among Republicans, however, the race is wide open, with Carson, Bush, Christie, Huckabee and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan all polling in double digits in North Carolina.
That the Tar Heel state’s presidential vote might be tight two years from now is no surprise given the way the state’s voters cast ballots in the recent past, particularly in 2008 and 2012. It also means we’ll be getting visits from the hopefuls of both parties, probably before the 2016 primaries and again before the November election, which can’t be a bad thing.
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In 2012 in North Carolina, the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan defeated President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden by 92,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million ballots. Four years before that, Obama and Biden defeated John McCain and Sarah Palin by a miniscule 14,177 votes out of more than 4.3 million cast, a 0.3 percent margin.
Those 2008 and 2012 totals mean the presidential race in North Carolina was one of the closest in the country two elections running.
But North Carolinians haven’t always been so equally divided in their presidential picks.
In 2004, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney won re-election nationwide and won handily in North Carolina over Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards. In 2000, Bush and Cheney garnered 56 percent of the votes against Al Gore and Joe Lieberman.
In 1996, Bob Dole garnered 49 percent in North Carolina, but Bill Clinton, who received 44 percent here, won the election nationwide.
In 1992, the N.C. race was close again. George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle defeated Clinton and Gore by about 20,000 votes, but Clinton won the presidency. In 1988, Bush and Quayle took 58 percent of the votes in North Carolina, easily beating Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bensen. Three decades ago, in 1984, Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale in North Carolina on his way to a second term. Four years before that, Reagan bested Jimmy Carter by fewer than 40,000 votes out of more than 1.8 million cast.
In 1976, Carter garnered 55 percent of the votes in North Carolina, drubbing Gerald Ford, who took 44 percent. And yes, just in case you’re keeping score, when Obama won North Carolina in 2008, he was the first Democrat to do that since Carter 32 years earlier.
This all is a long way of saying that in North Carolina’s presidential politics in 2016, anything is possible.
Which means the eyes of the nation are likely to be on our state again.
Patrick Gannon is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.