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Four years ago, Democrats in North Carolina were feeling pretty good at this point in the campaign. They had almost 390,000 projected Democrats’ ballots banked. A CBS/ YouGov poll taken in the last week of October had Hillary Clinton up 3 percentage points. And I spent that Halloween weekend watching Clinton volunteers fan out over suburban neighborhoods in Raleigh and Durham to marshal a political machine that seemed unstoppable.
Within days, Clinton lost by almost 4 percentage points.
Fast forward four years. Democrats have four times as many early votes already cast, with almost 1.6 million expected blue ballots in place. The same CBS/ YouGov poll has Joe Biden up 4 percentage points. No one is really knocking on Democratic doors right now, as the pandemic forced campaigns to move off doorsteps and onto television and smartphones. Still skittish from four years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find Democrats counting on the state as a sure thing.
That cautious restraint seems a wise course for all parties in North Carolina, whose political fortunes we will consider today as The D.C. Brief uses the final days of the campaign to tour the battleground states. North Carolina is a typically red state; Barack Obama’s win there in 2008 was the first time a Democrat carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Obama and the Democratic Party were so worried about it slipping from their grasp in 2012 that they held the party’s convention in Charlotte. (It wasn’t enough. Mitt Romney prevailed by 2 points.)
In a sign of just how worried Donald Trump and his Republicans are about the state this year, they, too, decided to hold his re-nominating convention in Charlotte. (That is, until the pandemic made mass gatherings a public-health risk and the GOP ultimately decided to hold Trump’s second-term launch party at the White House — in violation of ethics laws.)
North Carolina is part of the fast-changing South, fueled by an exodus to the Sun Belt and an influx from declining manufacturing hubs of the Midwest. The North Carolina suburbs that once were havens for conservatives are seeing Democrats seeping into their cul de sacs and faux farms. Four years ago, a plurality of North Carolinians reported they lived in the suburbs — 39% — and Trump carried them by 14 percentage points. Clinton carried the 37% of voters who live in the cities by 15 points. Trump’s rural blow-out by 19 points gave him the win.
These days, the ring counties around Charlotte and Raleigh are less red than they were in 2016, in large part because many of those middle-of-the-road voters have had it with Trump’s antics.