Margins matter for Trump in neck-and-neck N.C.

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HARRISBURG, N.C.—Mark Viehweg never thought he would be urging people to vote for a Democrat for president let alone have his face plastered on a billboard to do it.

Disgusted, though, by Donald Trump, Viehweg, a video producer, a church-going Presbyterian and a lifelong Republican, quietly voted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Now, in 2020, on behalf of Republican Voters Against Trump, he’s become a vocal proponent of Joe Biden.

“This is as close to an attempted dictatorship as I have seen in this country in my lifetime,” Viehweg, who’s 66, said the other day of Trump. “People have danced around it, saying, ‘Oh, autocratic,’ but I’ll just come out and call it what it is.”

But just as interesting and important as what Viehweg is willing to say publicly is simply where he lives — not in one of this swing state’s city centers but in the cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs of the exurbs of Charlotte. Because what North Carolina does in this election — whether it picks Trump or Biden, or Thom Tillis or Cal Cunningham in a race that has a chance to tip the balance of power in the United States Senate, or even Roy Cooper or Dan Forest for governor — could come down to the margins in reliably Republican spots like here in Cabarrus County. In other words, after the havoc of the last four years, how many more Mark Viehwegs might there be?

There are, of course, as always, myriad ways to watch and parse this or any other state that’s up for grabs heading into Tuesday. On the list here: Black turnout, suburban women, young voters, and an array of key counties — from the biggest urban counties like Mecklenburg and Wake to “swing” counties like Jackson, Granville, New Hanover and Nash to “bellwether” counties like Jackson, Caswell, Robeson and Hyde. As an aggregate unit, though, places like Cabarrus could be a particular sort of gauge for how the state will go.

Four years back, after all, one of the reasons Trump won North Carolina by 3.6 percent was that he romped not in the inner suburbs but in the outer suburbs — running it up to the tune of 65 percent of the vote. Around here, for instance, Trump won 67 percent in Iredell County, 65 percent in Gaston County, 64 percent in Union County and 59 percent here in Cabarrus. It almost certainly needs to stay that way for him to win again.

“The Cabarruses, the Unions,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist working for the Cooper and Cunningham campaigns, “these places where Trump is winning — but is he winning 62, 64 percent of the vote, or is he winning 57 percent of the vote? I think that’s going to be the difference maker.”

“There’s way too much, like, ‘This county goes this way, this county goes that way,’” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. “But moving a county from red to pink could be the difference between a Biden victory and a Trump victory in North Carolina.”

Polls, even in this year that’s been little but topsy-turvy, have been really remarkably steady in sum. Biden’s up but barely. It’s a similar scenario for Cunningham (even since his sexting scandal). Cooper’s lead, meanwhile, looks larger. There’s never, though, been an election like this, and variables abound.

Foremost is the state’s never-before-seen surge in absentee ballots (the Supreme Court ruled last week that they can be counted through Nov. 12) as well as early in-person voting (which stretched from Oct. 15 to this past Saturday). The state in recent days was approaching matching its total votes cast in 2016 in early votes alone in 2020. And the coronavirus pandemic has made this summer and fall look like no hustings from the past, with Democrats curtailing standard activities on account of a more cautious approach to public health, Republicans canvassing, rallying and campaigning with all but normal abandon. The consequences of this conspicuous contrast: TBD.

“The storyline to me out of North Carolina right now is the Republican ground game appears to be making a difference,” said GOP consultant Paul Shumaker, citing internal polling showing tightening and an atypical ticking up of Republicans in-person early-voting.

“They’re hiding,” Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor who now hosts a radio show in Charlotte, said last week of Biden, Cunningham, Cooper and other Democrats. “We’ll find out Tuesday, but I think it is giving the momentum to the Republicans,” he said.

Little things, said McCrory, will be big things. How will Covid alter the tallies from college campuses? And due to the pandemic, “half of New York,” he joked, “has moved to North Carolina”—buying houses from the mountains to the beach—“and it’ll be interesting if they changed their registration,” he said. “Little things like that could be a couple thousand votes.”

With the presidency potentially on the line, and the Senate, too, all eyes on election night will be on the Old North State. “I think the odds that we know some critical facts about North Carolina on election night are pretty good,” said Cooper, the political scientist. “We have as good a chance as any and certainly as good a chance as any swing state of being able to say something meaningful — maybe not by the time the kids go to bed but, hopefully, by the time I go to bed.”

Viehweg, meanwhile, already voted — by mail — weeks ago. He’s heard some comments of late that suggest some “second guessing” about Trump. Reactions to the first debate were “universally negative.” He wonders how many of his neighbors who voted for Trump last time … won’t this time.

“There’s going to be some erosion.”

He paused.

“I don’t know if it will be enough.”

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