Wilmington, North Carolina – As Election Day nears, Tuesday’s vote could not be more in focus in Wilmington, North Carolina.
The typically laid-back beach town of roughly 123,000 is lined with campaign signs along most of its main thoroughfares. A “Wilmington for Trump 2020” billboard towers high above a large mural of letters that spell out “Black Lives Do Matter”. And regulars at InstanBulls, a local cafe and hookah lounge, exchanged light banter about their expectations for Tuesday’s United States election, which has thrust the state into a national spotlight.
“I think it’s gonna be a landslide victory for [President Donald] Trump,” said Steve Pruitt, a farmer in the nearby town of Burgaw.
“He is the clear choice as far as being able to support and increase our job growth here in the country,” Pruitt, 25, told Al Jazeera. “We need to manufacture more products here to do a whole lot less outsourcing. And I’ve seen a lot of that improve, specifically in my field.”
Kristina Jamroz disagrees. “I’m very strongly against Donald Trump, and the rhetoric that he has spread and spewed, and how polarised he’s made our nation over the past four years,” the 24-year-old student told Al Jazeera.
While Jamroz cast an “unenthusiastic vote” for Biden, she said Trump, as president, has created “a lot of fear” among women, immigrants, minority groups, and those of different economic backgrounds. Although she could see why some may support Trump’s fiscal policies, his presidency has been “overwhelmingly negative in the scope of social issues”, and that is why she said it “felt more important now more than ever, to encourage both my peers to vote but also to vote myself in hopes of making a change for the next four years”.
The get-out-the-vote effort in Wilmington and across North Carolina has been massive as both parties vie for the critical battleground state’s 15 electoral votes. (It takes 270 of a total 538 to win.)
“I think North Carolina is one of the most critical, if not the most critical, state in the country,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
Recent NBC/Marist, CNN, and New York Times/Siena College polls show Biden with a slight advantage in the state. An average of recent polls by FiveThirtyEight shows the candidates in almost a dead heat.
Trump beat his 2016 Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, in the state by some 173,000 votes. But this year he is not taking any chances, leading seven campaign rallies in North Carolina since the beginning of September, and visiting the state for several other events. He has also sent high-level campaign surrogates and officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, to rally his supporters.
“Two days from now we are going to win this great state just like we did last time,” Trump told a cheering crowd in Hickory on Sunday night. “You were the one that put us over that hump.” The president also visited Fayetteville on Monday morning.
It is a strategy that analysts say shows how close the campaign believes the race is in North Carolina, as well as other key battleground states across the country.
North Carolina “is essential to Trump,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
“It is almost impossible to see how he has a path to 270 electoral votes without NC,” Greene told Al Jazeera.
On the other hand, a win for Biden “would be nice”, but “far from essential,” Greene said. “He could look to an electoral college map much like [former President Barack] Obama’s 2012 map where Obama did not win NC. Biden’s relative strength in Arizona this year also makes NC somewhat less essential for him.”
Biden, who until recently was holding mostly virtual campaign events due to the coronavirus pandemic, has only campaigned in the state three times since February. Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Biden’s wife, Jill, have both made campaign stops in North Carolina over the last couple of days, however.
“It is within our power to determine, and you will determine, North Carolina, who will be the next president of the United States,” Harris told a drive-in rally at Fayetteville State University Sunday evening. “Everything is at stake. Everything.”
The last-minute rallies come as a record 4.5 million people – about 61 percent of registered voters – in the state have already cast their ballots, either through absentee or early in-person voting.
“The early vote in this state is just simply astounding,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. Although the high numbers of early absentee ballots may look like good news for Democrats, based on past voter turnout, Bitzer said it was too early to know what it may mean for the race.
“We don’t have anything to base this kind of record turnout on,” he told Al Jazeera. “And the key is a significant rise in the unaffiliated voters. We’ve never seen these numbers from unaffiliated voters before.”
Analysts are also expecting high turnout on Tuesday, culminating in long lines at the polls, and a long night of counting. Polls, which open at 6:30am (11:30 GMT), are scheduled to close at 7:30pm (00:30 GMT), with tallies from early voting reported not long afterwards.
Eyes are also on North Carolina for the competitive US Senate race, which many believe will be pivotal in determining which party controls the upper chamber. Most polling shows Republican Senator Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham neck and neck, with the challenger with a slight advantage. Both campaigns suffered controversies in the lead-up to the election, with Tillis testing positive for coronavirus after attending a White House event, and Cunningham admitting to an extramarital affair.
Democrats are also expected to gain US House seats due to a court-order redistricting, following a successful challenge over partisan gerrymandering.
Back in Wilmington, the presidential race tops many voters’ minds. New Hanover County, home to Wilmington, is considered a bellwether county for its almost evenly split percentage of Republicans (31 percent) and Democrats (30 percent), and an even higher number of unaffiliated voters (38 percent).
“New Hanover is one of four counties in North Carolina that voted for [Democratic] Governor [Roy] Cooper and Donald Trump in 2016,” said Western Carolina University’s Cooper.
Such competitive races have created what voters here describe as a tense, and at times, toxic environment. Unlike in past elections, campaigning has also taken to the water. On any given weekend, Wilmington resident Katharine Hesmer might see several boats bearing huge Trump flags zooming past her home.
While the Biden supporter says she wasn’t politically active before 2016, Trump’s four years in office and the presence of those boat flags prompted her to put up a sign of her own that reads, “TRUMP SUCKS”. She has also helped with postcard writing for Democratic candidates. And it’s in living in such a critical state that has Hesmer proud to vote.
“I feel proud to do my part to fight to reinstate dignity and integrity in the White House,” she said. “And I won’t stop after November 3 either. I’m going to start working on the next midterm election.”