When early voting starts in North Carolina next week, Marie Horton, a 63-year-old retiree from High Point, will be one of the first people to cast an in-person ballot for Hillary Clinton. She’s bringing her 87-year-old mother, too.
“I think it just continues to send that message out that North Carolina is supporting Hillary Clinton,” Horton said as she waited for President Barack Obama to take the stage at a rally for Clinton in Greensboro. “I will make sure that she is there.”
All but a handful of states offer some form of early voting and getting supporters to cast their ballots before Election Day is a central part of the Democratic nominee's strategy for the closing weeks of the presidential campaign against Donald Trump.
That's especially true in North Carolina, a battleground that Clinton's campaign is trying to sew up before Nov. 8. In 2008, Obama’s 178,000 lead in early votes offset his 165,000 deficit on Election Day. That was enough to provide him a narrow victory margin—less than 14,000 votes—and make him the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in three decades. He wasn't able to repeat the feat four years later, when 60 percent of ballots in the state were either early in-person votes or absentee ballots, as Mitt Romney hit the state with an improved Republican ground game.
Winning North Carolina's 15 electoral votes is important for the Clinton campaign, but critical for Trump who has an increasingly narrow path to victory as polls show him falling behind nationally and in battleground states. Clinton leads Trump by an average of 6.2 percentage points, according to the average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics. In North Carolina her average advantage is 2.6 points.
Clinton is using a more extensive state operation than Trump has been able to mount to get as many people as possible, especially infrequent voters, to register and vote early. The campaign is using a mix of tradition tactics, such as its “souls to the polls” project ferrying church goers to register and vote, along with digital advertising and blanketing social media sites like Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.
Another clear advantage for Clinton is that she can rely on popular, high profile surrogates like the president and first lady Michelle Obama and other top Democrats while Trump is at war with the Republican establishment and many of the party's top current and former officials are staying on the sidelines.
“Early voting starts next Thursday, and you can reject a dark and pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other and turn away from our role as leaders in the world,” President Obama told the crowd of 7,700 in Greensboro on Tuesday. “Choose the America we know, an America that’s full of courage and optimism.”
The two campaigns have taken very different approaches to the ground game in the battleground states. The Clinton organization is in charge of all coordinated efforts with the Democratic National Committee and state and local parties in swing states. Her campaign says it has 33 offices and a staff of almost 300 in North Carolina.
The Trump campaign has been slow to build its own infrastructure, relying instead on the ground game set up by the Republican National Committee and voter contacts at Trump campaign rallies to aid in registration and get out the vote efforts. Although the RNC says its been working to build battleground state operations since the 2012 defeat, the party and the Trump campaign didn't open its first joint office in the North Carolina until mid-September.
“The Clinton campaign has good relations with the state and local parties, with the folks who have information on voters who in the past have cast either early in person or no excuse absentee ballots,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. “By all reports the Trump campaign has lagged in terms of putting together a get out the vote operation. The same thing applies to get out the early vote.”
North Carolina has been reliably Republican in presidential elections since the 1968 election began a nationwide political realignment with the South turning away from the Democratic Party. In the last 48 years, only two Democrats—southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Obama in 2008—have won the state.
But another realignment may be coming in states like North Carolina that are becoming more urbanized and diverse. That's particularly visible in places like Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located. While Al Gore lost Mecklenburg County in 2000, John Kerry narrowly won it by 12,000 in 2004. In 2008 and 2012, Obama won the county by 100,000. Since 2012, African American voter registrations have had a net increase of 8.5 percent.
Clinton's organizational advantage may already be paying off. Black voter registration was up 4 percent in North Carolina as of last week compared to the same point in 2012, and Hispanic voter registrations were up 49 percent. Both groups are mainstays of the coalition that Clinton is counting on.
The Clinton campaign also appears to have an advantage among people voting absentee by mail, which started Sept. 9—Democrats are beating their 2012 performance while Republicans are underperforming.
North Carolina voters have requested nearly 125,000 absentee ballots so far, and returned nearly 25,000, according to an analysis of voter data by Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. There were 50,000 requests, or 40 percent, from Republicans and 39,000 from Democrats. But registered Democrats have been returning ballots at a slightly higher rate, sending back 9,300 compared with 9,200 from Republicans. In 2012, Republicans, who are more likely than Democrats to vote by mail, had requested close to 65,000 ballots and had over 15,000 accepted at this point.
“If the GOP ballot return rate starts to lag then this indicates that Trump may be facing a real up hill battle in these states,” Gronke said. “Clinton, what she’s got to show is that she can rack up those votes, that her organization is going to be able to build up those numbers.”
Preaching to the Choir
Racking up that lead means reaching out to the voters who don't always vote. Asked if his campaign had learned anything from Obama's 2008 and 2012 runs, Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of states and political engagement, said they were focused on their least reliable voters.
“What we’re doing this year is really focusing in on sporadic voters, people who may vote in some presidential elections…really going after those folks to let them know about all the opportunities they have to participate in voting,” Marshall said.
Outside of Obama’s Greensboro rally on Tuesday campaign organizers stood with clip boards asking people if they were registered to vote at their current address. Nearly everyone said yes. Nora Carter, a 54-year-old minister at Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, and two other other female ministers said the Clinton campaign has been in constant contact with them, texting, e-mailing, knocking on their doors, and reaching out via social media.
“They’re knocking on doors on a weekly basis, doing the phone calling, now communities are working together, churches are working together to adopt a community to go out to make sure that people are registered, if they have transportation to vote,” said Glencie Rhedrick, a 62-year-old minister at First Baptist Church West in Charlotte.
Rhendrick said early voting was critical for giving minority voters a chance to cast their vote. “In 2008 and 2012 early voting made the difference, because we have so many workers who work 24 hour shifts, being able to take off and stand in the long lines may not be possible,” she said. “I will be an early voter.”