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My earliest memory of participating in politics was Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. For a Cub Scouts project, I made posters complete with a smiling peanut touting my candidate. I was a 9-year-old growing up in eastern North Carolina. At that point in my life, I had only met two Republicans, and they were married to each other. So, I assumed that my party’s candidate would carry North Carolina every four years.
Little did I know that it would be another 32 years before another Democrat would win my state when Barack Obama carried North Carolina by 14,177 votes in 2008. Obama came close again in 2012. Hillary Clinton looked poised to carry North Carolina in 2016 until the closing days of the campaign. Other than those two races, the only other Democratic presidential candidate who came close in my lifetime was Bill Clinton, who came within 20,000 votes of winning North Carolina in 1992.
What is it going to take for the Democratic nominee to compete in and carry North Carolina in 2020? North Carolina is a microcosm of what Democrats are facing on a national level. The metropolitan areas of the state are voting Democratic while the rural parts of North Carolina have become solidly Republican. A 9-year-old growing up in eastern North Carolina today has a few more opportunities to meet actual Republicans than I did.
While a Democrat can focus on the state’s largest 10 to 15 counties to win statewide, that does not leave much room for error. There has to be a strategy to expand the map into more of North Carolina in order to improve the success rate statewide and to position legislative candidates across the state to pick up seats that can be won by Democrats.
The party must organize everywhere. There are Democrats in all 100 counties. Even in those counties where they are outnumbered, Democrats need a reason to get excited, get involved and go vote. Turnout statewide was crucial in races such as 2008 and 1992, when the margin was 20,000 votes or less. In 2020, some of these voters may not deliver a state House seat, but they could be the difference in delivering 15 electoral votes for the White House.
In order to carry North Carolina in 2020, the Democratic nominee will need to win over some of the voters who chose Trump in 2016. The nominee does not have to abandon Democratic principles and progressive issues to do this. There is a considerable number of Trump voters who split their tickets in 2016. Stop talking down to them and instead focus on what Democrats are going to do to address their problems. Show compassion. Earn their trust and their votes.
The 2020 nominee will also have to appeal to the Democratic base. To win, that candidate cannot forget the importance of African American, Latino and young voters. The nominee must inspire and energize this segment of the Obama coalition in order to win. The campaign will also have to be prepared with a robust voter protection program to remove barriers that too often discourage or prevent base voters from casting their ballots.
In 2016, registered Republicans had stronger turnout than registered Democrats: 75.3 percent for Republicans and 68.5 percent for Democrats. Only 63.1 percent of the fastest growing segment of North Carolina voters, those registered as unaffiliated, showed up to vote. Democrats are going to have to do better with their own and with Independents in 2020. A Democratic nominee running as a change agent against the status quo presents that opportunity.
There is a scene near the end of the documentary “War Room” where James Carville is on the phone with Gary Pearce, who was managing North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt’s 1992 campaign. Despite the fact that Carville knew that Clinton had secured the electoral votes necessary to win, both he and Clinton wanted to put North Carolina in their column. Pearce broke the news that while Hunt won overwhelmingly, Clinton was going to come up short.
Winning North Carolina as a Democrat was meaningful to Bill Clinton. He wanted it in 1992 and believed that Hillary Clinton could prevail in 2016. The Democratic nominee will have to learn from those and other losses to run the type of campaign that inspires Democrats, Independents and yes, even some Republicans, to change the outcome in this key state.
Bruce Thompson II served on the national finance committee for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. He served as legal counsel to Kay Hagan’s 2008 Senate campaign and was a North Carolina advisor for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He is now a partner at the Raleigh, N.C., office and Washington, D.C., location of Parker Poe.