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US presidential election swing states: Can North Carolina turn blue?

Though polling points to victory for Joe Biden and the Democrats, they must contend with some of the most extreme gerrymandering anywhere in the country. 

 

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On the second night of the Democratic National Convention, a star was born. During the delegate roll-call, Democrats made use of the event's virtual nature to showcase someone from each state. When they got to North Carolina, all eyes were on Cozzie Watkins.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, so let me just be plain: black people, especially black women, are the backbone of this party and if we don’t show up, Democrats don’t get elected,” said Watkins. The 69-year-old nurse continued; “I’m putting my mask on and we’re going to every corner in North Carolina to help organise. Because we need to make sure everyone shows up for Joe Biden. He will show up for us.”

In 2008, North Carolina went for Barack Obama. But the state turned Republican red again in 2012 and 2016. At present, though, most polls have the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden narrowly ahead. Democrats are nervously asking themselves: for the first time in over a decade, will North Carolina, at the national level, swing back blue?

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North Carolina is a true swing state, which is to say that its population is split in terms of the political direction it wants to see its state go. If you were to line up all 50 states along the political spectrum, explained Nadine Gibson, an assistant professor in the department of public and international affairs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, “you would find that North Carolina is right in the centre”.

“The distribution of the population in terms of party identification is pretty much equal,” she added, referring to the number of people who are registered Republicans, Democrats, and independent.

There’s an image some have of North Carolina as a traditionally conservative, Deep South state. And there are parts of it that live up to that expectation. In Currituck County, for example, road signs offer directions to gun shops; hungry residents can eat at either Dirty Dick’s Crab House or stop by Powell’s Roadside Market; white mansions dot perfectly green grass under perfectly blue skies; and “Trump Pence” signs adorn the lawns. The president won the county in 2016, just as Mitt Romney did in 2012 (and, for that matter, as John McCain did in 2008).

But that’s not the whole state. Elsewhere, there’s the Research Triangle, which contains three major research universities (North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill). There’s the city of Asheville with its arts scene and the city of Charlotte, which has a larger population than Washington, DC.

 

“I think that in general there's this sense of North Carolina being this very southern, white, Bible-belt state,” said Chavi Khanna Koneru, executive director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together. In reality, she said, the state is “incredibly diverse. My family's lived here since 1989 and we've been an active part of North Carolina.”

There are also people moving into the state, which changes its political make-up — but in North Carolina, these individuals also tend to balance each other out.

There has been “significant movement of people [into North Carolina] from other parts of the country for the past 25 years or so”, said Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University. Some of them come from places like New York, Michigan, and Illinois and settle in urban and suburban areas; some of them are older and come to retire, and are perhaps more conservative; and some move for North Carolina’s professional offerings in high-tech fields and tend to be better educated, which in turn tends to mean more liberal-leaning.

Net migration to North Carolina comes most from Asia and New York
Top ten sources of migration to and from North Carolina, 2014-18

All things being equal, one might expect, based on polling, for North Carolina to narrowly swing for the Democrats. But all things are not equal. The state has some of the most extreme gerrymandering anywhere in the US. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee sued last month to block state election officials from implementing rules that would increase the number of ballots counted. There are disputes over voter ID laws and the number of polling places. North Carolina has no-excuse absentee voting, meaning that voters don’t need a reason to vote by mail, which one would think would make voting safer and more accessible in the election, but black voters’ ballots are already being thrown out at disproportionate rates.

The question, according to Andrew Reynolds, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, is, “Does voter suppression – the sort of panoply of different things they're trying to do – amount to enough that it calls into question the final result?” Reynolds, for his part, thinks that it will make less difference in the presidential and Senate election than in the local elections.

In particular, the North Carolina Senate election, held concurrently with the presidential vote, could impact the future not just of the state but the country. The seat is currently held by Thom Tillis, a Republican; if it is won by the Democrat challenger, it could help the party retake the Senate.

Tillis's opponent is Cal Cunningham, a married father of two who billed himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat and stressed his service to the party, who was recently exposed as having had an affair. But then Tillis tested positive for Covid-19 after attending the White House event celebrating Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, and also had reports emerge that his ex-wife alleged she had suffered "cruel and inhuman treatment" at his hands. That Cunningham's flirty text messages were published seems not to have hurt him; he's still polling ahead of Tillis, and 58 per cent of voters who had heard of the affair said it made "no difference". Often, if a state Senate seat is open in a presidential year and changes hands, it predicts how the state will go in the presidential election. But often is not always. And unlike Biden, Cunningham doesn't have to worry about the electoral college – which is to say that whoever wins the most votes in a Senate election wins, something not true in the race for the White House.

 

But in the presidential vote, too, Democrats have one thing in their favour, which is that, unlike in other states, in North Carolina mail-in votes that arrive before election day can be counted ahead of 3 November. “Every absentee ballot that comes in before election day is put in the computer and is ready to go,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. Given that most mail-in ballots are expected to be sent in by Democrats, if it’s either close or trending towards Biden on election night, it could be unquestionably good news for the challenger. “It would be a really big deal if Biden won this state, and if he does, it will likely be apparent on the night,” Greene said.

But in addition to overt and direct voter suppression, there are also challenges facing certain voters, as Koneru enumerated. There’s a lack of language accessibility (and 40 different languages spoken among what’s considered to be the Asian-American population). Plus, the rules are not always easily comprehensible or simplified for a non-English speaker. Part of the reason that Koneru co-founded North Carolina Asian Americans Together is that they found that 80 percent of Asian Americans in the south had never been contacted by anyone for any election ever. And despite the Asian-American population growth in the state over the past 10-15 years, there’s limited representation of the community in the echelons of power.

That doesn’t mean that Koneru is giving up. Instead, her organisation is working to fill in the gaps left by those whose job it was to fill them. The board of elections won’t require masks or temperature checks? North Carolina Asian Americans Together will be at polling places serving Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities with masks and sanitisers. Language accessibility is an issue? It will translate all voter education material into Hindu, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Urdu. People of East Asian descent are at greater risk because the pandemic is used as an excuse for racism and xenophobia? It is increasing election protection.

The respective presidential campaigns, too, are trying to turn what will certainly be a close vote. Both have sent their heaviest hitters to the state for appearances, and Trump held rallies in North Carolina before he tested positive for Covid-19 (the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment).

As for the Biden campaign: “We have the winning ticket and strategy, and will flip North Carolina blue for Joe Biden and elect Democrats up and down the ballot in November, but we’re not taking anything for granted,” the campaign’s state director, LT McCrimmon said in a statement. The campaign has held virtual coalition events, recruited 40,000 volunteers, and blanketed the airwaves with ads (on a recent trip to North Carolina, I was struck by one particularly moving ad about Biden’s personal story and healthcare; I wondered why I had not seen it before and then realised that I live not in a swing state but in Washington, DC). And they are doing targeted advertisements, too, announcing on Friday, for example, a paid media campaign meant to mobilise Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. So far, Democrats outpace Republicans in absentee ballot requests. 

The state is politically purple (almost equally red and blue). The question of who wins is answered by who can jump the hurdles and manage to cast a vote. And campaigns and activists and organisers know that.

They are doing, in other words, what Cozzie Watkins said. They’re putting their masks on. They’re organising. They’re showing up.

Visit the NS's US 2020 presidential election forecast model for the latest polling

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor