For Donald Trump, the Southern swing state is as close to a must-win as it gets.
RALEIGH, N.C.— Tim Kaine stumped in Wilmington. Donald Trump pressed his case at a boisterous rally here in the state capital. Seventy miles to the west, former President Bill Clinton headlined an event in Greensboro. And all that took place before the planned midnight blowout rally for Hillary Clinton, featuring the nominee herself and A-list guests like Lady Gaga and Jon Bon Jovi.
On a frenzied election eve, North Carolina voters felt the full brunt of its role as a presidential fulcrum, a state recognized by both campaigns as essential to Trump’s path to the White House.
“If Secretary Clinton wins North Carolina, there really is no path for Donald Trump to win the presidency,” said Scott Falmlen, the former executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, explaining the aggressive Clinton push here. “People throw around the word ‘firewall.’ This time, this truly is a firewall, to prevent him from winning.”
For Trump, who faces a narrower path to 270 electoral votes than Clinton, North Carolina is as close to a must-win state as it gets since his path to the presidency likely begins with winning Mitt Romney’s 2012 map. For her part, Clinton recognizes that a win here potentially delivers a knockout blow to the GOP nominee.
Polls show a razor-thin contest — according to the POLITICO Battleground States polling average, Clinton leads by two-tenths of a percentage point — heightening the intensity on both sides.
Bill Clinton’s rally at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro was designed to encourage millennial turnout — and also to boost enthusiasm among minorities, as the Democrats scramble to hit 2012 turnout numbers with African-Americans, a core liberal constituency that will determine whether Clinton wins or loses the state. UNC-Greensboro is one of the most diverse schools in the UNC system.
His campus event drew a diverse crowd of students who lined up for what appeared to be the equivalent of a city block, with some students waiting as long as three hours to get into the event, held on a campus lawn with a large American flag as the backdrop.
Over and over, the students in line—many of whom said they had already voted, for Hillary Clinton—said they were drawn to the event in part to protest what they see as the racially divisive tendencies of Trump’s campaign.
“I’m Hispanic and Muslim,” said Duriyah Bustillo, a 27-year-old senior studying hospitality, who was born in Colombia and was the first person in line. “He discriminates. He doesn’t understand what people [are] made of. He just cares about himself.”
The highway connecting Clinton’s Greensboro rally with Trump’s Raleigh event also hummed with election activity. An hour or so before Trump’s event began, a bus decked out in Trump-Pence bunting zoomed down the road, trailed closely by a black truck bearing two large Trump flags. A few miles later, an enormous Clinton sign came into view on the side of the interstate.
On the ground in Raleigh, the energy for Trump was palpable at a glass-enclosed arena that was full, though not packed, with some empty seats and space on the floor apparent. There were “thousands” of people still trying to get in, Trump said, though when a POLITICO reporter walked by the main entrance 40 minutes earlier, there didn’t appear to be a line outside.
Trump offered his closing argument to North Carolina, pledging to secure the border, appoint conservative Supreme Court justices and bring an outsider’s perspective to Washington.
The supportive and energetic Trump crowd frequently burst into chants of “lock her up,” booing Clinton and the media. Trump whipped the crowd up by touting strong poll numbers in one breath and decrying a “rigged” system in the next.
“In one day we are going to win the great state of North Carolina, and we are going to win back the White House,” Trump said, accurately linking his fortunes here with that of the rest of his campaign.
Trump is not expected to win Wake County, the Democratic and populous county that is home to Raleigh. But he does need to reduce the margins by which he loses this key county. Part of that is ensuring that he doesn’t bleed too much support from the well-heeled suburbanites—particularly the women—who typically vote Republican but are uncomfortable with his rhetoric and are eyeing a vote for the potential first female president.
Before Trump spoke, several surrogates sought to help him with that demographic.
“As a girl raised right here in North Carolina, I have good Southern values,” said Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law, who has been running female outreach efforts in several swing states on behalf of the campaign. “I could never be part of a family, or speak on behalf of a man I did not truly believe in. I believe with all my heart Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States.”
Her pitch, however, also veered from the earnest notes.
“I actually see a lot of women here,” she said, striking a sarcastic note. “I’m confused. I thought women didn’t vote for Donald Trump.”
Another pair of surrogates—Diamond and Silk, the female African-American performers who are vocal Trump supporters—were even less subtle.
“It’s not about the ovaries in the Oval Office, it’s about who has the balls to build a wall,” the pair said to cheers. Some attendees laughed sheepishly, but they applauded anyway.
As Trump spoke, female attendees waved pink “Women for Trump” signs, and another woman waved one that read “1st Lady Melania. Bill Clinton? No class. No way.”
“There they are, women for Trump,” the candidate said approvingly, to big applause. Parked outside the venue were several buses, including the “Women for Trump” bus, which has been touring the state, carting female surrogates for the candidate.
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