- President Donald Trump's reelection hopes could hinge on winning North Carolina's 15 electoral votes.
- The Tar Heel State is also a major player in Democrats' push to regain the Senate.
- "If the Republicans don't win North Carolina, it suggests the GOP stranglehold of the South is lessening and may be gone," one political expert told CNBC.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have visited the swing state at least half a dozen times within the past two months. Trump alone has made five trips in that time, both before and after his hospitalization with the coronavirus.
Former Vice President Biden, whose campaign until recently had been largely virtual due to the pandemic, has visited North Carolina three times since February. Both campaigns are spending heavily in the state, where early voters are turning out in droves in the final weeks before the Nov. 3 election.
"Most paths to the White House go through North Carolina," said Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University. "It's particularly true for President Trump."
The Trump campaign has signaled as much. In September, it shared with reporters seven potential paths to victory it envisioned at the time. Five of them included winning North Carolina.
Polls show Biden ahead of Trump nationally, though the race is tighter in the Tar Heel State and other key battlegrounds, including Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But as a must-win state for the president, a major player in Democrats' push to regain the Senate and a microcosm of shifting demographics throughout the country, North Carolina could set the stage for a political shake-up with generational implications.
The state's makeup and influence, Cooper said, place it "smack in the middle" of the 2020 election.
"It's American politics, perfectly distilled, like an 18-year-old scotch," he said. "If the Republicans don't win North Carolina, it suggests the GOP stranglehold of the South is lessening and may be gone."
At a presidential level, the state has voted reliably red for decades. Republican nominees for the White House have won North Carolina in 10 of the last 12 elections. George W. Bush easily won North Carolina by double-digit margins in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
But Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 snatched the state away from the GOP for the first time since 1976. While Republicans narrowly won it back in the next two elections — Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump in 2016 — the blue shift persisted, keeping North Carolina competitive for both parties seeking the White House.
"We were the reddest blue state in the country" in 2008, Cooper said, and "the bluest red state" in 2016.
Trump beat then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 3.6 percentage points. Of North Carolina's 100 counties, seven that had gone to Obama in 2012 flipped to Trump in 2016. Just one county went from red to blue.
The counties that flipped red were more rural, and had shifted in line with the increasing political divide between urban and rural populations. Between 2012 and 2016, areas of the state that were less White, more educated and had a higher share of people living in cities moved further left, The Washington Post reported. Whiter, more rural areas shifted right, according to the Post.
A sharp decline in Black turnout in 2016, including in the Tar Heel State, may have also played a role in Trump's win: Nearly 90% of Black voters who did cast ballots in North Carolina picked Clinton over Trump, exit polls showed.
With the pandemic prompting state leaders to expand mail-in voting access, the difference in turnout from 2016 to 2020 could be dramatic. But it's yet unclear if Biden can flip North Carolina away from Trump.
Take Nash County, for example. Located in North Carolina's rural "Black Belt," Nash broke for Obama in 2012, then narrowly backed Trump in 2016 by a margin of less than 1 point.
The county, like the state, had heavily supported the Republican ticket in 2000 and 2004. That's despite the fact that Nash and other counties in the region have larger Black populations that in past elections have overwhelmingly backed Democrats. In the last decade, the proportion of Black residents in Nash County grew significantly, Census data shows.
Early voter tallies suggest turnout might still be an issue. On North Carolina's first day of early voting, about 11% of Nash's registered voters had so far cast their ballots — a smaller slice than other counties, some of which saw day one turnout levels near 20%.
Even before it was considered a presidential swing state, North Carolina's political identity was hard to pin down.
There have long been more registered Democrats than Republicans statewide, and that remains the case in the 2020 contest. But fully one-third of voters there are registered as unaffiliated, outnumbering Republicans.
Just three of North Carolina's 13 congressional seats are held by Democrats, though that number is poised to grow after a state court last year ordered that the district map be redrawn for 2020. The state legislative map has also been reworked, giving Democrats hope of breaking the GOP's grip on both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Part of the reason for the state's divided government can be explained by its political geography, which features Republican-leaning rural expanses and smaller, but more densely populated, blue urban areas. While Republicans hold the state's House and Senate, North Carolina has had a Democrat in the governor's mansion for all but four of the last 27 years.
Those divisions have led to bitter political partisanship and deadlock — perhaps most notably over H.B. 2, the transgender "bathroom bill" signed into law by the last Republican governor, Pat McCrory. Widespread opposition to the bill, including downward pressure from pro sports leagues, was key to Democrat Roy Cooper's victory over McCrory in 2016.
Polls show Cooper ahead of his GOP challenger in the 2020 cycle. But much more attention has been paid to the Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham, who is favored to win even after getting caught in a sexting scandal early this month.
Tillis' seat is near the top of the target list for Democrats hoping to recapture a Senate majority. The chamber currently holds a 53-47 Republican majority.