Donald Trump seems determined to make the 2020 election about race and immigration. He thinks that those issues divide the electorate and motivate his base. He believes they work especially well in states like North Carolina with large rural populations and areas still struggling with the loss of manufacturing jobs. Residents see changing demographics as a threat to their cultural identity and economic security, even if they are currently solidly middle class. The profile also fits states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, the major swing states Trump needs to win the electoral college. 

The strategy worked in 2016 in North Carolina. Disaffected white voters came out to support him in large numbers, driving GOP turnout to historic highs. That year, though, Trump was also helped by a less enthusiastic Democratic turnout. In 2020, he will have been president for four years and all his rhetoric and divisiveness will play a factor. 

In 2018, Trump drove turnout to skyrocket. Even though the state had a Blue Moon election with nothing at the top of the statewide ticket except judicial races, overall turnout increased 9% over 2014 despite a competitive Senate race that midterm. While white turnout increased a comparable 9% in 2018 over 2014, African-American turnout increased about 6%. Both Asian and Hispanic turnout more than doubled but combined they only made up about 2.5% of the electorate. 

Young people also got involved in unusually high numbers in 2018. Voters 18-25 saw their turnout increase by more than 11% and voters 25-40 jumped 10%. In 2016, these voters voted for Democrats by 60% to 40%. 

Republicans increased their turnout in 2018 by about 8% over 2014. Democrats increased their turnout by about the same amount. The unaffiliated voters increased their turnout by about 11% but their numbers were growing and they made up a large percentage of registered voters. The unaffiliated vote increase was driven primarily by participation of younger voters in the electoral process. They broke for Democrats, giving the party its advantage when the votes were counted. 

In 2018, Trump was the driver of the electorate even though he wasn’t on the ballot. In 2020, expect him to dominate the race. It will be a referendum on his presidency and his temperament. He’s betting that he can drive more white voters to the polls with his polarizing rhetoric. However, in North Carolina in 2018, he also drove more African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians to vote. He motivated younger voters to go to the polls, too.  

Trump believes that his divisive and racist rhetoric will drive his supporters to polls again in 2020. Democrats are hoping that he’s creating as big a backlash against him. In North Carolina, he’s got a fine line to walk. He won by less than 200,000 votes with a depressed Democratic turnout. Erosion of that support could could cost him the state and put Republicans running below him at risk, too.  

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