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How rural Black voters in North Carolina could flip the Electoral College in 2024

North Carolina has been reliably Republican in presidential elections except for a narrow victory for Barack Obama in 2008, but analysts believe that state – for a number of reasons – could potentially be in play for President Biden, which could dramatically change the electoral calculus . But to achieve that, Biden will need to win heavily Democratic outposts like Northampton County and stem the flow of black voters to the Republican standard-bearer, as polls suggest they continue to disapprove of Biden's handling of the economy.

For example, Biden won this district by 20 points in 2020, but former President Donald Trump actually improved his performance here by 5 percentage points compared to 2016. There are signs he could improve that lead further in 2024, especially as voters continue to think poorly about the economy.

In the one-stop town of Gaston, James Wilkins sat on the side of a dilapidated truck parked in front of a gas station convenience store. The 74-year-old Black man says he's open to voting for Trump.

“He's not as bad as some people say. “He wasn’t that bad for a president,” Wilkins said. “[Joe] Biden? It's time for him to go home. He's too old. Everyone here knows.”

The majority of the population in Northampton County is Black. The average annual income is $29,000. One in five officially lives in poverty. It's rural. The county seat of Jackson has a population of 513 and the only sit-down restaurant there is only open on Thursday evenings. It is among a group of counties that are still reliably Democratic despite declining populations.

“Northampton County is a microcosm of eastern North Carolina where African Americans hold the key to victory for perhaps even the entire state,” said GK Butterfield, a Democrat who represented the county in Congress for 18 years before retiring in 2022 retired. “Maybe even the presidency.”

That's one reason Biden's campaign is running a television commercial in North Carolina featuring a Black farmer from another county. The state's Democrats will launch a bus tour that will pass through here later this month. Vice President Kamala Harris has visited the state four times this year, and Biden has been to the state three times, most recently this month.

The Trump campaign believes the county is fertile ground for further road expansion. Since the beginning of the year, Trump has planned two trips to North Carolina. Local Republicans believe the congressional district, which includes Northampton County, is the only one in the state they could flip.

If North Carolina is truly in play — and that's a big if — then the entire campaign strategy will be rewritten for both parties.

Until now, even the most casual observers of the contest believed that the 2024 presidential election would be another tough contest, with victory determined by six states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

The reason Trump won in 2016 is because he won all of those states except Nevada, where he narrowly lost. The reason Biden won in 2020 is because he won them all. Logic would suggest that a similar pattern would occur in 2024.

But in 2020, Trump won North Carolina by just 74,483 votes, a margin of victory of 1.35 percent. A victory in this ninth-largest state with 16 Electoral College votes is a big step for Biden.

“We have several paths to reach 270 electoral votes. And North Carolina is a big part of one of those paths for us. That’s why we’re going to keep as many doors open as possible,” Biden’s chief deputy campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, said in an interview. “North Carolina is a very serious place for us.”

Most Republicans reject this talk. They point out that Trump led every poll in North Carolina throughout the year by an average margin of 5.4 percent, according to RealClearPolitics. Many believe that Democrats will eventually realize that winning here is hopeless and withdraw from the state, just as they did in 2012, 2016 and 2020.

Trump campaign senior adviser Lynne Patton noted that they are working with the Republican National Committee “to create the most comprehensive coalitions the Republican Party has ever created” to reach places like Northampton County.

“Our coalition message to Black communities in this election is simple: If you want strong borders, safe neighborhoods, rising wages, quality jobs, school choice and the return of the strongest economy in over 60 years, then vote for Donald J. Trump.” Patton said.

Patton cited record low black employment, increased funding for historically black colleges and the passage of criminal justice reform legislation during Trump's presidency as specific reasons she believes black voters are drawn to Trump. The latest North Carolina poll by Emerson College and The Hill newspaper found Biden's approval rating among black voters in the state at just 62 percent, a 6-point decline since September.

But Paul Shumaker, a longtime Republican strategist from North Carolina who helped elect two U.S. senators in the last few decades, said flatly: “North Carolina is the swingiest of swing states right now, and people are starting to realize that. “

The state has rarely found itself in this situation. Republicans have won all but one presidential election here since 1976.

“I can’t imagine Trump winning the presidency if he loses North Carolina,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State.

But there are reasons to believe Biden is better positioned than he was four years ago.

First, Biden used his financial advantage in the election campaign. His campaign began last August with local television advertising, has set up 11 field offices and is on track to have 40 employees by the end of the month. Trump, meanwhile, has no local television ads, no dedicated campaign staff and no offices other than coordination with those already set up by the local GOP.

Second, Trump will be running alongside problematic statewide candidates. Polls show Trump-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson significantly losing the state after more attention was paid to his anti-gay and anti-Semitic language. There's also Michelle Morrow, the Republican candidate for North Carolina public schools who made national headlines after calling on pay-per-view for the execution of prominent Democrats like Biden and Obama who she said should be killed .

Third is the massive demographic changes in the state that benefit Democrats. Areas around Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington are among the fastest-growing areas in the country, attracting younger and more educated voters not often associated with the MAGA movement. And those Republicans moving to the fast-growing suburbs are the reason former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did better in the Republican primary here than almost anywhere else, winning 23 percent of the vote than her campaign was on its last legs.

“Given the changing demographics, Democrats have a lot of fantasies about North Carolina in the medium and long term,” said NC State’s Taylor. “But in the short term, particularly if Trump and Robinson enter the election together, there's really a reason for them to test some things and see where that goes.”


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.

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