North Carolina arrived on the scene of presidential relevance in 2008. As Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling often observes, the Tar Heel state had the second-closest margin in the country both in that year and four years later, in 2012. Even in 2016, when Donald Trump got some breathing room from his Democratic opponent, North Carolina was the sixth closest state. Despite this record of tight elections, most national observers had tagged the state as likely to go Republican in 2020.
This may still happen, but the trajectory of the race points toward an extremely close and as-yet uncertain result. Polling shows a remarkably tight race in the state. The last four polls have shown Biden up by 3%, Biden by 1%, a dead-even tie, and a two-point Trump lead. Before that, a string of polls showed Trump leading by the narrowest possible margin–1%. And before those polls, Biden had consistently posted narrow leads. Months of public-opinion data paint a picture of a state that will likely not settle its results until late in the night of November 3.
Compared to most of the other swing states, North Carolina boasts a narrower margin between Trump and Biden. In the Rust Belt, Biden has some room to maneuver with a roughly five-point lead across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The former Vice President leads by a similar margin in Florida. Closest to North Carolina is its fellow emerging battleground, Arizona, where Trump and Biden trade leads in a similar ping-pong pattern. This partly represents North Carolina and Arizona being more conservative than the other four battlegrounds, but it also reveals an ingrained and rigid polarization in NC.
We can expect this race to be deeply and regrettably polarized along sociological lines. Like the rest of the South, North Carolina shows inelastic racial polarization in voting. African-Americans will likely vote for Biden at a nearly 90% rate–and the VP needs that margin from the Black community if he is to carry North Carolina. Meanwhile, the state’s white population can be expected to give at least 60% of its votes to the Republican incumbent. The rural-urban divide will be considerable.
Given this extreme polarization, both parties will need to aim for historic turnout from their respective bases. Based on admittedly informal observations, I expect small-town North Carolina to deliver for Trump. I spent last weekend in one of the most conservative parts of the state and saw Trump signs everywhere. The challenge for Democrats is to motivate core constituencies such as “latte town” residents and younger voters of color to come out despite their lukewarm feelings toward Biden. Regardless of what happens, this race is a pure tossup.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.