As 2020 inches ever nearer, I’d like to look at what the presidential candidates might mean for North Carolina. We are one of the most evenly divided states in the nation. Most likely, the presidential campaign will play out heavily here. It’s not that we are the tipping point state, but Republicans probably can’t lose North Carolina and win the electoral college. That makes us a key battleground state.
So which candidates threaten Republicans the most in North Carolina? The moderates. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bloomberg, if his billions get him off the ground like they should, could all win the state if they become the nominee. They’re safe candidates for moderate conservatives exhausted and embarrassed by Donald Trump’s antics. In North Carolina, those voters make up the swing voters left in our polarized society.
I think Klobuchar, both in North Carolina and nationally, matches up best with Trump. She comes across as pragmatic, disciplined and unflappable. In contrast, Trump is uninformed, flailing and thin-skinned. Her path to the nomination is narrow, though. She’ll need to win or come very close in Iowa and use that momentum to launch a national campaign. It’s a tough road but not impossible.
Biden comes across as a safe choice. The reason his gaffes haven’t hurt him is that we all know who he is. He’s a decent, caring and empathetic man, the polar opposite of Trump. His policies are cautious and incremental at a time when a lot of Americans want a return to normal, even if that’s not really possible. At the national level, never-Trump Republicans are already gearing up to support him. Like Klobuchar, he’s a safe choice for moderate conservative swing voters in North Carolina.
By March, we’ll know if Bloomberg’s massive ad campaign can launch him into the top-tier. The early primaries will weed out a lot of candidates and the former Mayor of New York may look attractive to people looking for a second choice. Bloomberg comes with some baggage, but being too radical isn’t part of it. He’s been a Republican, Independent and is now a Democrat. He’s not Tom Steyer who tried to turn his personal obsessions into a political campaign. He’s a serious politician who happens to also be a billionaire. He ran New York so effectively in the wake of 9/11 that they allowed him to run for a third term. Again, he’s not threatening to centrist voters and could bring broad appeal to the general election.
I don’t think North Carolina will vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Both candidates staked their flags too far to the left for most of the swing voters in North Carolina. Sanders, in particular, will get savaged with his own words by the Trump campaign. He spent most of his political career bragging about being a socialist and spent time in the Soviet Union when it was even more repressive than it is today. That legacy will likely kill him in a general election campaign.
As for Warren, she’s the victim of a self-inflicted wound. She killed the momentum she was building by getting into a protracted fight over Medicare for All. The position is a loser because in a general election it will turn into a fight about forcing people off of their health insurance plans. Like it or not, people prefer what they know to what they don’t. Warren didn’t learn the lesson from the Obama promise: “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” Instead, Warren promises uncertainty at a time when people want certainty. Maybe Warren can win in other states and even the presidency, but I don’t believe she can win here.
Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro and Cory Booker are also more moderate candidates. However, I don’t think Booker or Castro have the momentum to make it through the early primary states. As for Buttigieg, I’m afraid a state that voted against marriage equality by a 20 point margin just eight years ago is not ready to vote for a 37 year old gay man, especially one whose political experience is limited to serving as mayor of a town the size of High Point.
Despite trending blue, North Carolina is still a moderately conservative state. However, swing voters here aren’t really Trumpists. They are suburban whites who want their taxes low and don’t want much government interference in their lives, but are also smart enough to see through the Trump con. They’ve leaned Republican for the past 20 years or so, but they’ll vote for a Democrat as long as that Democrat doesn’t want to upend their lives with too many ambitious policies.
A moderate at the top of the ticket will make it easier for North Carolina Democrats down the ballot. We’re still a state of ticket-splitters so losing the presidential race here doesn’t necessarily spell doom, but winning it could turn a good year for Democrats into a great one, especially in the legislative races Democrats need to win to gain control of one chamber of the legislature.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >