Warning signs for Biden in North Carolina as race tightens: ‘He needs to come’

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.

30 PHOTOSJoe Biden in 2020See GalleryJoe Biden in 2020WILMINGTON, DELAWARE – JUNE 30: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event June 30, 2020 at Alexis I. Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden discussed the Trump Administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)WILMINGTON, DELAWARE – JUNE 30: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event June 30, 2020 at Alexis I. Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden discussed the Trump Administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden answers questions after speaking about the coronavirus pandemic and the economy on June 30, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden leaves after speaking about the coronavirus pandemic and the economy on June 30, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden answers questions after speaking about the coronavirus pandemic and the economy on June 30, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)TOPSHOT – US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus pandemic and the economy on June 30, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)LANCASTER, PA – JUNE 25: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden arrives to speak to families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act during an event at the Lancaster Recreation Center on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Biden met with families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act and made remarks on his plan for affordable health care. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)LANCASTER, PA – JUNE 25: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act during an event at the Lancaster Recreation Center on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Biden met with families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act and made remarks on his plan for affordable health care. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)LANCASTER, PA – JUNE 25: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to Amy Raslevich (C) and her daughter Laura about how they have benefited from the Affordable Care Act during an event at the Lancaster Recreation Center on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Biden met with families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act and made remarks on his plan for affordable healthcare. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)LANCASTER, PA – JUNE 25: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during an event about affordable healthcare at the Lancaster Recreation Center on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Biden met with families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act and made remarks on his plan for affordable healthcare. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks after meeting with Pennsylvania families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Acton June 25, 2020 in Lancaster,Pennsylvania. – Biden has largely remained off the campaign trail and in his Delaware home since mid-March due to the pandemic, although he has begun participating in small-scale events. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks about reopening the economy during a round table discussion at Carlettes Backyard Bar & Soul food Restaurant in Yeadon, Pennsylvania on June 17, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden holds a roundtable meeting on reopening the economy with community leaders at the Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 11, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden holds a roundtable meeting on reopening the economy with community leaders at the Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 11, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden holds a roundtable meeting on reopening the economy with community leaders at the Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 11, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presumptive presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise Church on June 9, 2020, in Houston. – George Floyd will be laid to rest Tuesday in his Houston hometown, the culmination of a long farewell to the 46-year-old African American whose death in custody ignited global protests against police brutality and racism.Thousands of well-wishers filed past Floyd’s coffin in a public viewing a day earlier, as a court set bail at $1 million for the white officer charged with his murder last month in Minneapolis. (Photo by David J. Phillip / POOL / AFP) (Photo by DAVID J. PHILLIP/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)TOPSHOT – Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden arrives to speak at Delaware State Universitys student center in Dover, Delaware, on June 5, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets with clergy members and community activists during a visit to Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware on June 1, 2020. – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visited the scene of an anti-racism protest in the state of Delaware on May 31, 2020, saying that the United States was “in pain”. “We are a nation in pain right now, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us,” Biden wrote in Twitter, posting a picture of him speaking with a black family at the cordoned-off site where a protesters had gathered on Saturday night. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden meets with clergy members and community activists during a visit to Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware on June 1, 2020. – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden visited the scene of an anti-racism protest in the state of Delaware on May 31, 2020, saying that the United States was “in pain”. “We are a nation in pain right now, but we must not allow this pain to destroy us,” Biden wrote in Twitter, posting a picture of him speaking with a black family at the cordoned-off site where a protesters had gathered on Saturday night. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) departs the Delaware Memorial Bridge Veteran’s Memorial Park after paying respects to fallen service members in New Castle, Delaware, May 25, 2020. – Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, emerged from more than two months of seclusion on May 25, wearing a black face mask during a visit to lay a wreath on the day the United States honors its war dead. Biden’s last public appearance was March 15 when he faced off against his former Democratic rival Bernie Sanders for a debate in a television studio held with no live audience. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden arrives to pay his respects to fallen service members on Memorial Day at Delaware Memorial Bridge Veteran’s Memorial Park in Newcastle, Delaware, May 25, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden, leave Delaware Memorial Bridge Veteran’s Memorial Park after paying their respects to fallen service members in Newcastle, Delaware, May 25, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden, pay their respects to fallen service members on Memorial Day at Delaware Memorial Bridge Veteran’s Memorial Park in Newcastle, Delaware, May 25, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden with his wife Jill Biden, pay their respects to fallen service members on Memorial Day at Delaware Memorial Bridge Veteran’s Memorial Park in Newcastle, Delaware, May 25, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 28:Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Hillary Clinton during The Impact of COVID-19 on Women virtual town hall event as seen livestreaming on a laptop in Washington, DC on April 28, 2020. During the event, Hillary Clinton endorsed Joe Biden for president. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)LOS ANGELES – APRIL 21: James chats with Joe Biden Melanie C from his garage on THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDEN, scheduled to air Tuesday, April 21, 2020 (12:37-1:37 AM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo is a screen grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)UNKNOWN LOCATION – APRIL 13:In this screengrab taken from JoeBiden.com campaign website, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) endorses Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during a live streaming broadcast on April 13, 2020. Sanders said,“Today, I am asking all Americans—I’m asking every Democrat, I’m asking every Independent, I’m asking a lot of Republicans—to come together in this campaign to support your candidacy.”(Photo by JoeBiden.com via Getty Images)El exvicepresidente Joe Biden habla con los medios de comunicación y un puñado de simpatizantes en Berston Field House el 9 de marzo de 2020, en Flint, Michigan. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden arrives to speak at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)Up Next

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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.”

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