Republicans barely clawed back the state of North Carolina in the 2012 election, four years after losing it for the first time since Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. According to a new poll from the New York Times and Siena College, Democrats may be on their way to clawing it back. The poll shows Hillary Clinton leading by seven points in a three-way race, but the results raise a few questions, too:
No state that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 has posed a bigger challenge for Donald J. Trump than North Carolina. He has trailed in every survey there since the first presidential debate, and he does not have a credible path to the presidency without its 15 electoral votes.
A New York Times Upshot/Siena College survey released on Tuesday confirms that Mr. Trump’s standing has deteriorated considerably. Hillary Clinton has a seven-point lead over Mr. Trump in North Carolina, 46 percent to 39 percent, among likely voters in a three-way race including the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
It’s a big improvement for Mrs. Clinton since September, when the last New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll showed a tied race in the state — as other polls at the time also did. It mirrors a national trend of steady gains for Mrs. Clinton throughout October.
Perhaps, but the survey has its issues, too. For one thing, no other poll in October has shown Hillary leading outside the margin of error in North Carolina. (In fact, a new poll from Democratic pollster PPP emerging as I write this post puts Hillary up only two points.) The largest lead Hillary got this month was a four-point edge in a ±3.6 poll from Marist for NBC/WSJ two weeks ago — and that gave Gary Johnson 9% of the respondents. Hillary’s RCP average lead for NC is 2.1 points, which makes a +7 result look outlier-ish, especially given the close nature of the state’s electoral results over the last several election cycles. Not even Barack Obama managed to get a majority of the vote here, winning with just 49.7% in 2008 to John McCain’s 49.4%.
The Marist poll had something else in common with the NYT/Siena survey — a largish Democratic sample. That poll was D+9, 40/31, among likely voters. The Siena poll has D+10, 36/26, and a larger representation of independents (who break to Trump by six points — but Mitt Romney won them by 15 points in 2012). Those, however, are not necessarily out of range. The 2008 turnout model was actually D+11, 42/31, with McCain winning more Democrats than Obama won Republicans. The 2012 turnout model was D+6 at 39/33, and that plus the same five-point loyalty edge was enough for Romney to win a two-point victory. Democratic party affiliation isn’t necessarily an indicator of presidential outcomes, especially in Southern states.
The bigger problem here is the outlier-ish nature of the results, but not necessarily the conclusion. RCP’s aggregation shows that Trump hasn’t led in a poll in North Carolina for over a month; in September, he seemed to have a polling lead, in fact. What looks clear from the trend is that while Hillary may not be dominating, she’s developed an edge in a state that Republicans cannot afford to lose. Those 15 electoral votes will put a big hole in the GOP’s standing, making a long-shot pickup elsewhere more or less a wash.
If it slips away, the ground game will be the likeliest explanation, Rob Christensen concludes:
“My sense is we got a late start,” said Dan Gurley, former deputy political director and field director for the RNC. “We are playing catch up, but we are catching up.”
The Trump/RNC operation’s 11 field offices in North Carolina compare to 24 that Mitt Romney had in 2012, according to FiveThirtyEight. …
“But my observation is that Donald Trump doesn’t seem very interested in the ground game,” Felts said. “Whether intentional or not, Trump seems to have decided to run a grand experiment betting that earned media and a cult of personality is more important than grass-roots infrastructure. It’s not how I learned to win elections, but we’ll see who was right on Nov. 8.”
In one sign of a possible problem of enthusiasm in the Republican ranks, there has been a dropoff in mail ballots cast in North Carolina compared with the same period in 2012. Registered Republican mail-in votes are down 58 percent from four years ago, while mail-in votes of Democratic and unaffiliated voters are roughly the same as in 2012, according to political scientist Michael Bitzer’s Old North State Politics blog.
In my book Going Red, I emphasized the need for the GOP to expand its footprint in places like Wake County, NC, and to have a presidential campaign oriented to ground-up, peer-to-peer politicking. As Felts says, we’ll see whether swing states can be won without it, but so far the answer’s not looking very good. And with just two weeks to go, the prospects of a change in those assessments don’t look promising either.