Turnout in the final stretch of early voting in North Carolina goes a long way towards explaining why Hillary Clinton has focused such intense attention on this pivotal swing state, including appearing with the popular First Lady Michelle Obama in Winston-Salem a week ago to deploying the president himself across the state this week, along with surrogates from Sen. Cory Booker to actor Will Farrell.
North Carolina is a must-win for Donald Trump in any virtually any scenario that provides the Republican nominee a pathway to the White House, and is considered an insurance policy by the Clinton campaign against possible losses in more friendly states like New Hampshire and Colorado.
Turnout among African Americans, who reliably vote Democrat, has notably softened, in comparison to 2012, when Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket. Black vote as a share of overall ballots cast in early voting through Wednesday are down to 22.0 percent, compared to 27.4 percent of early voting in 2012, according to an analysis by Triad City Beat.
Those same numbers show that the percentage of registered Democrats participating in early voting is down to 42.7 percent from 47.3 percent, while registered Republicans are holding steady with 31.8 percent of the early voters. Those numbers are less significant however, considering that unaffiliated voters have increased as a percentage of the electorate over the past four years from 25.7 percent to 30.0 percent, while Democrats’ share of the pie has dropped.
Despite saturating North Carolina with surrogates making the case for Clinton, the campaign has struggled to transfer the enthusiastic and loyal support for President Obama by black voters to the Democratic nominee. Even as she prevailed over Democratic rival Bernie Sanders in the primary, Clinton earned fewer votes — 622,915 in this election year — than she did in the 2008, when she lost to Barack Obama, 657,669 to 887,391. The party is faced with a difficult task in making the case for its nominee on the basis that she’ll preserve the legacy of her former rival, whose election as a change agent was carried on a tide of excitement and optimism, in stark contrast to the frustrated and constrained atmosphere of the current political moment.
While also emphasizing Clinton’s inclusive vision as a contrast to the divisive rhetoric of her opponent, Michelle Obama’s crafted her appeal on the nominee’s behalf around a dire warning during her Oct. 27 appearance at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Oct. 27.
“If Hillary doesn’t win this election, that will be on us,” she said. “It will be because we did not stand with her. It will be because we did not vote for her. And that is exactly what her opponent is hoping will happen. That’s the strategy — to make this election so dirty and ugly that we don’t want any part of it. So when you hear folks talking about a global conspiracy and saying that this election is rigged, understand that they are trying to get you to stay home.”
As another indication of the lukewarm feelings held by many African-Americans towards Hillary Clinton, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson — who represented the Democratic Party’s progressive wing as a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, in contrast to the more centrist direction Clinton husband took the party in 1992 — told volunteers in Greensboro on Oct. 28: “And when you vote it’s not the perfect choice, but it’s the sound choice.”
Meanwhile the race in North Carolina — a state considered among a handful that could tip the contest — has turned into a tie, with Republican nominee Donald Trump erasing Clinton’s previous lead, recent polling suggests. Among three polls conducted after news broke that the FBI was reviewing new emails that might be relevant to its previous investigation of Clinton, two [1 and 2] out of three give the edge to Trump.
Not everyone is counseling panic for Democrats in North Carolina. The New York Times’ Upshot, for one, sees evidence in the state’s early voting numbers to support a scenario in which Clinton prevails by 6 point. Indeed, in Guilford County — the third most populous in the state with black voters comprising more than a third of the electorate — previous patterns appear to be holding. White Republican men comprise 13.0 percent of the early voting electorate, compared to 13.1 percent during early voting in 2012, suggesting there’s no particular surge of enthusiasm driven by Trump. And while black women’s share of the electorate has dropped to 21.0 percent from 23.2 percent, that could be offset by a jump in participation among white women — a demographic thought to be friendlier towards Clinton than Trump — to 33.6 percent from 31.6 percent.
While there’s been plenty of talk about voter suppression in North Carolina — the Fourth Circuit Court famously opined that the Republican-sponsored election law passed in 2013 “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision” — major provisions of the law were struck down. As a result, early voting was expanded by seven days, a voter ID requirement was stripped, out and same-day registration during early voting was restored.
To the extent that voters have the opportunity to cast their votes early — Saturday is the final opportunity — worries about voter intimidation by challengers inspired by Trump are somewhat mitigated. Voters who might be deterred during early voting have the leeway of voting at a later time or a different location. In contrast, Election Day is a work day for many and the last possible day of voting; voters are also constrained to cast ballots in their precincts or run the risk that their votes won’t count.
While a small number of isolated incidents of intimidation have been reported during early voting, Jen Jones of Democracy North Carolina told Triad City Beat that the most common problems reported to a jointly operated Election Protection hotline is people discovering they’re not registered to vote.
“It’s a great thing to say to a voter — they’re frantic: ‘You can go back to an early-voting site, and register and vote on the same day,’” Jones said.
If Trump walks away with North Carolina, it may be less the result of voter suppression than a combination of lack of enthusiasm for their candidate among Democrats and general demoralization. Last Sunday was supposed to be the major mobilization for black voters, with parishioners marching to early voting sites as part of a so-called “Souls to the Polls.” The energy level was gauged by 70-year-old LJ Pettyjohn of Greensboro, quoted in a report by North Carolina Public Radio as saying, “We need something a little more upbeat. We need a little pick me up!”
One thing is sure: Considering that Obama carried North Carolina by only 14,177 votes — a margin of .03 percent — in 2008, every vote matters.