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As presidential race narrows in North Carolina, voters say they want face time with Biden

Polls show a tight race in the Southern battleground, increasing pressure on Biden to visit a state key to a Trump path to victory.
Image: Biden speaks about reopening schools amid COVID-19 pandemic in Wilmington, Delaware
Joe Biden speaks about reopening schools in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Debbie George, 61, a yoga instructor in Charlotte, North Carolina, said she "desperately" wants Joe Biden to carry her battleground state and defeat President Donald Trump in the general election.

But from what George, a lifelong Democrat, said she has seen so far, Biden just isn't doing enough to galvanize support among Democrats and independents to win the state.

"He needs to come. He needs to address North Carolinians. Some kind of socially distanced event, a small conference or roundtable," she said. "These rehearsed speeches in front of no one are not cutting it."

George's concerns underscore the uphill battle Biden appears to have if he wants to win this Southern swing state and its 15 electoral votes in November.

Interviews with a number of North Carolina voters, current and former party officials, political strategists, pollsters and politics watchers paint a picture of a critical battleground that remains within the grasp of an unpopular president, even as the coronavirus continues to ravage the nation's health and economy and protesters keep up calls for racial justice.

There are factors working in Biden's favor. He remains extremely popular with the state's large contingent of Black voters, a group he'll need to carry with an Obama-era level of enthusiasm to win the state, and the number of absentee ballots (which the state started mailing out Friday) requested by registered Democrats has soared. Polls show he is also performing exceedingly well with women, suburbanites and suburban women (like George) — groups he'll also need to overwhelmingly carry in order to win.

But to capitalize on those prospects, multiple sources said, he'll need to do more than run ads and make small speeches streamed from Pennsylvania.

"There's a worry he needs to be more visible," Raleigh-based Democratic strategist Gary Pearce said.

A tight race in a hard state for Democratic presidential nominees

North Carolina was always going to be difficult for Biden: Barack Obama's 2008 victory in the state is the only time a Democratic presidential candidate has carried it in the last 44 years. But given that both North Carolina and national polls show that voters feel Biden would handle the coronavirus pandemic better than Trump, many Democrats have high hopes that Biden can reprise that success.

With the general election entering a pivotal fall stretch, Biden has in recent days increased his travel schedule. After months of holding only virtual rallies and in-person events within a short drive of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden last week delivered a speech in Pittsburgh and traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he met with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha police.

Trump, in contrast, has had a far more robust travel schedule, holding regular visits to battleground states, including numerous stops in North Carolina in recent months.

Recent polling shows the race tightening in the state. The latest polling average kept by FiveThirtyEight shows a virtual tie, with Biden leading Trump by 48.6 percent to 46.8 percent — a smaller lead for Biden than in averages taken by the site of recent polling during the summer.

'Any one person is an easier opponent than a killer virus'

Possibly boosting Trump, sources said, is the fact that North Carolina voters don't appear to be as dissatisfied with his response to COVID-19 as voters in other battleground states are.

A Fox News poll released Wednesday showed that 50 percent of likely voters in North Carolina felt Biden would do better handling the pandemic, while 41 percent said they felt that way about Trump. By comparison, Fox News polls of likely voters in Arizona (53 percent vs. 36 percent) and Wisconsin (52 percent vs. 35 percent) released the same day showed far higher levels of confidence in Biden in handling the pandemic.

"The president has suffered a bit of a hit here on coronavirus, but not nearly as big as in other states," said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. "I'm not sure that alone puts this state in the presidential race into blue territory."

Confirmed COVID-19 infections have surged in the state recently, however. North Carolina has had, in the last seven days, the sixth most confirmed cases and the fifth most confirmed deaths from the virus.

Despite the rise, some North Carolina Republicans who remain bullish on its staying red this year said the national visibility for Biden that began during the Democratic National Convention last month may actually help Trump exit what had been a brutal match-up with COVID-19.

"The president has finally started to have an opponent that isn't the virus," said Dallas Woodhouse, former executive director of the North Carolina GOP. "Until recently, it's felt like the president's opponent was the virus, and that was a very tough environment for him.

"Any one person is an easier opponent than a killer virus," he added.

A constant presence by Trump and Pence

In addition, the Biden campaign just hasn't had the physical presence in the state that Trump's campaign has.

Since July 27, Trump or Vice President Mike Pence have visited the state in person five times — including a surprise visit by both men to the scaled-down Republican National Convention last month — with another trip by Trump to Winston-Salem planned for Tuesday. Donald Trump Jr. is scheduled to hold a Make America Great Again rally Thursday in Hendersonville.

The Trump campaign said it has 120 paid staffers on the ground in North Carolina and has so far made 6 million in-person and virtual voter contacts. The campaign has also blitzed the airwaves in the state with millions of dollars in ads that attack Biden — in many cases misleadingly or inaccurately.

Conversely, the Biden campaign, citing the pandemic, has knocked on zero doors, not just in North Carolina, but all over the U.S. Instead, his campaign said, volunteers have dropped off campaign literature at doors. His campaign, however, said it had held "hundreds" of virtual events targeting the state, had virtually recruited more than 3,000 volunteers there, had made over 3.5 million calls to voters in the state and is working with "hundreds of organizers to engage North Carolinians." The campaign also pointed to numerous interviews with local television by Biden, as well as key surrogates, as evidence that they've had a presence in the state.

The Biden campaign has also saturated North Carolina airwaves with ads — part of its $45 million ad buy in battleground states — in English and Spanish. Some attack Trump for sowing division in the country and highlight his "failures" with Black voters, and some focus on Biden, along with his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, as being "committed to listening" to Black people and pushing for racial justice. Others promote Biden's plans to combat the pandemic or feature attacks on Trump's previous threats to cut Social Security funding.

Several experts, however, said the difference in the on-the-ground approach between the Trump and Biden campaigns was reminiscent of the mistakes the Hillary Clinton campaign made in 2016 in the state and elsewhere.

"In 2016, it didn't feel like the Clinton campaign took the state seriously, even though they could have really made some inroads and made it a very tight race here," Bitzer said. "Biden is taking the state seriously, but, like last time, it just doesn't feel like they have a very strong ground game," he said, noting that Black turnout in the state dropped significantly in 2016.

Biden, however, may not have the same problem with Black voters, whose high levels of support are critical. Black voters handed Biden decisive victories in the Democratic primaries, but some, including voters interviewed in other battleground states, like Michigan, have strongly urged him not to take their support for granted.

Biden vowed last week to visit North Carolina.

"I promise you, I'm coming," he told WTVD-TV of Raleigh on Tuesday.

Some positive signs for Biden

An analysis of North Carolina State Board of Elections data conducted by Bitzer showed that, amid an overall enormous rise in requests for absentee ballots, the number of registered Democrats who have already requested absentee ballots for this year's election is 18 times what it was at the same point in the 2016 race. By comparison, registered unaffiliated requests have multiplied 14 times the 2016 levels, while registered Republicans have made such requests at only five times the 2016 levels.

Critically, his analysis showed that the number of Black voters who have already requested absentee ballots is nearly 30 times what it was at the same point in 2016 (although, as a proportion of the increased overall ballots requested, the current levels for Black voters are closer to twice the 2016 level). A Monmouth University poll of registered North Carolina voters released Thursday showed that 85 percent of Black voters in the state support Biden, compared to 10 percent for Trump.

Bitzer and others said, however, that the exponential increase in absentee ballot requests by voters inclined to support Biden doesn't guarantee anything.

"There are steps that the voter has to take in order for that ballot to be accepted, and with so many new absentees potentially, that could be a real problem," he said.

Trump just last week encouraged people in North Carolina to vote twice in the November election, once by mail and once in person, to test the system — escalating his attempts to sow confusion and cast doubt on the validity of the results. (It is illegal to vote more than once in an election.)

But another point favorable to Biden is that, while polls have tightened, Trump has yet to lead him in any polling average tracked by FiveThirtyEight, which has been tracking their head-to-head matchup since Biden emerged as the likely Democratic nominee in March.

Because absentee voting in the state has actually already started (the state began mailing absentee ballots Friday to registered voters who requested them), the current snapshot of the race could have an outsize impact on the final results two months from now.

Other strategists said the frequency with which Trump and Pence have visited the state should be regarded as a major warning sign for Republicans.

"I think the fact that Trump and Pence are here so much tells you that they are worried," said Pearce, the Democratic strategist. "Biden can win the White House without winning North Carolina. Trump can't."

But to do so, Pearce and others emphasized, Biden will need to come and earn the votes himself.

"Doesn't have to be anything huge," said Maureen Kelly, an airline company stock clerk in Charlotte who supports Biden. "But his presence here would make a difference."