Why Clinton is struggling to eke out a key victory in North Carolina

Story highlights

  • Doug Heye: "Reluctant Trump" party activists may be big obstacle for GOP candidate
  • For now, North Carolina provides no guarantee of victory for Clinton either, he says

Doug Heye, a CNN political commentator, is a Republican 25-year veteran of politics in Washington and throughout the nation, including three campaigns in his native state of North Carolina. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Perhaps no state will be closer than North Carolina. Every poll is neck and neck and hardly a day goes by without a candidate or surrogate visit.

Doug Heye
In both the 2008 and 2012 elections, North Carolina was the second closest in the nation. President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and lost it to Mitt Romney four years later.
    Despite this electoral tightness, Hillary Clinton enjoys two clear advantages that, in a normal political year, should push her over the finish line in the Tar Heel state -- organization and demographics.

    Organization

    The long 2008 primary battle forced both Clinton and Obama to campaign hard in North Carolina. Clinton sought to appeal to white conservative Democrats -- the "Jesse-crats" of yore -- more likely to support her in the primary than Obama, winning support of local conservative media, such as the traditionally conservative Dunn Daily Record.
    While Clinton came up short in the Democratic primary in 2008, instead of dismantling, Democratic organizations merged, morphed and evolved with Obama's campaign structures. Organizing for America and state-based liberal grass-roots organizations were associated with the Obama campaign.
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    This may help give Clinton a much needed enthusiasm boost, given tensions over House Bill 2 -- the "bathroom bill" -- and "Moral Monday" voting rights protests that have become a fixture at the state Capitol in Raleigh.
    Clinton has more than 30 field offices in the state. Trump is just now working on opening up field offices in North Carolina. The Republican National Committee staff on the ground must overcome Trump's organizational absence. Many GOP candidates, chairs and activists focus on state and local campaigns, not Trump.
    During a recent visit to a North Carolina Republican county headquarters, I saw few Trump materials and no Trump enthusiasm. Signs for insurance commissioner and District Court judge were more prominently displayed than any Trump collateral, an attitude sure to affect voter outreach. At a recent Wake County Republican barbecue, candidate speeches avoided any mention of Trump. For the Trump campaign, party activists who are "Reluctant Trump" may be a bigger obstacle than anything Never Trump.
    Meanwhile, absentee ballots are already being mailed out in the state, and, as The Associated Press is reporting, "earliest numbers from advance voting for president show initial strength" for Clinton, assuming that the Democrats who requested ballots have voted for her. This is in no small part due to her campaign's ability to find, target and contact potential absentee voters -- and get them to return those ballots. Trump lacks this ability, which should help Clinton run up the score on him before Election Day.

    Demographics

    North Carolina is a changing, growing state.
    For generations, campaigns battled over the eastern part of the state, which, while growing in some areas, pales in comparison to suburban areas outside cities including Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. These suburban areas -- such as Cary, which some call "Containment Area of Relocated Yankees" -- continue to grow in size and importance.
    In these growing areas, many of these voters are new to the state and, even if Republican, uncomfortable with the direction the GOP Legislature has taken in the past few years.
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    But it's not merely the migration from Northern voters. Forsyth, Mecklenburg, Orange and Wake counties, which make up almost 25% of the state's population, have seen nearly 50% of new voter registration since Labor Day.
    Some of this may be due to the counties being home to colleges such as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Wake Forest University, where returning students are registering to vote. Those counties are also home to some of the state's 11 historically black colleges and universities, such as Johnson C. Smith University, Shaw University and Winston-Salem State University.
    Young voters have not been a strong suit for Clinton, but African-Americans have. The Elon poll shows Clinton receiving 98% of North Carolina African-American voters -- and historically black colleges were virtual turnout machines for Obama. And recent racially charged comments by Trump supporters, including US Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte (for which he later apologized), further hurts any Republican efforts to gain African-American votes.
    The African-American percentage of the state's population has seen a small increase since 2008, but the Hispanic population has grown by nearly 20%, changing the makeup of some areas as it has grown. One is as likely to see Hispanic storefronts downtown (Tienda El Centro and La Jalisco, to name but two) in Siler City, a town so linked to "Andy Griffith Show" lore that Frances Bavier -- aka Aunt Bee -- relocated there post-retirement, than any reminder of Mayberry.
    But if women are the cornerstone demographic for a Clinton win nationally, nowhere may that be more true than North Carolina. Fifty-six percent of all North Carolina voters in 2012 were women, the highest total of any state with exit polling. Romney received 49% of the women vote in 2012 despite his "binders full of women" comment and the Obama campaign's aggressive targeting of single women.
    Will those same voters find Trump's treatment of Clinton during Monday's debate as merely aggressive, or as overbearing? An early indicator, a Washington Post focus group in Cary, showed Trump did not fare well.
    Trump's misogynistic comments and Clinton's potential to serve as the first female president mean the mailboxes, airwaves and smartphones of women in North Carolina are already being flooded with pro-Clinton/anti-Trump messages. The debate should only increase their importance to the Clinton campaign.
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    All of these factors should spell a somewhat comfortable victory for Clinton, something neither her husband nor Obama accomplished. And yet she is still struggling to keep her head above water in the state.
    Some of this is understandable -- Clinton is not personally popular and voters in the state find her as untrustworthy as voters throughout the nation. Undecided North Carolinians who favor the current direction of the country view Clinton overwhelmingly unfavorably. Military voters and veterans -- North Carolina ranks third in active duty military personnel and eighth in military veteran population -- view Hillary Clinton with the same suspicion as they viewed her husband.
    And if Trump is partially playing from Clinton's 2008 playbook to win North Carolina -- which involved appealing to white conservative voters and focusing more on conservative media -- his campaign must know there are less of those voters than eight years ago. It may be a coalition that can still win, but with a slim margin for error.
    Given the closeness of the state the past two times and the closeness of the race as a whole (we are seriously talking about a 269-269 tie scenario), North Carolina may be what flips it. It's a must win for both candidates.
    North Carolina should be moving in Clinton's direction and Democrats have every reason to be optimistic about future races in the state. For now, however, Tobacco Road provides no guarantee of victory.