There is little doubt North Carolina will play a pivotal role in the 2020 elections. Its Senate race may help determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress and the winner of its 15 electoral votes will likely control the White House.
Despite Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE being a deeply flawed president and candidate and being in the midst of a House inquiry likely to produce articles of impeachment, recent polls suggest that he is holding his own in terms of winning North Carolina in 2020. While these results show that Trump’s base will likely support him in 2020, they point to real problems for Democrats hoping to flip North Carolina’s electoral votes in their attempt to win back the presidency.
The October Meredith Poll asked state voters their preferences in matchups involving Trump and the five leading Democratic challengers for the party’s nomination: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE, Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Boston set to elect first female mayor Progressive groups call for Puerto Rico Fiscal Control Board to be abolished MORE (Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack trillion tax hike the opposite of 'good investment' Progressive groups call for Puerto Rico Fiscal Control Board to be abolished MORE (Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisLive coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris Australia's COVID overreaction could come to US MORE (Calif.) and Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Ind. The poll results had Trump with slight leads over Biden and Warren, but larger leads over Sanders, Harris and Buttegieg. In each of these matchups, Trump’s support was steady at around 38 percent — just under his job approval rating in the state.
The Democratic candidates ranged from just over 34 percent for Biden to approximately 27 percent for Buttigieg. This range was significantly below Trump’s job disapproval rating of almost 54 percent. Although some of the Democratic candidates are not well known to North Carolina voters, almost one-in-five respondents expressed an interest in “someone else” when given the matchups.
An even more surprising finding was that we asked registered voters to choose between Trump and a “person randomly chosen from the phonebook” and this generic opponent had the slimmest deficit against Trump — 42.7 percent to 40.1 percent.
The warning signs have always been there for Democrats hoping to take back the White House, despite polls, like the Meredith Poll, showing strong enthusiasm among Democratic voters heading into the 2020 election cycle. These warning signs revolve around their candidates.
To many within the Democratic base, Biden represents more nostalgia than a future of progressive policies. He is perceived as a nice guy who may not be able to go mano-a-mano with Trump.
Some remain skeptical of Warren, who has risen in the polls in recent months. For all but the most progressive Democratic voters, she may be too liberal. And many consider her to be more of a policy wonk than a leader.
Sanders has a committed group of supporters, but he may have missed his best chance in 2016 by losing the nomination to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPennsylvania GOP authorizes subpoenas in election probe We must mount an all-country response to help our Afghan allies Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader MORE.
Harris and Buttegieg may have bright futures in Democratic politics, but both may have peaked in terms of their support from broad swaths of voters. Harris needs to define who she is and what she stands for, while Buttegieg may need more experience than being mayor of a mid-sized city can provide.
The old adage is that Democratic voters want to fall in love with their candidates, while Republican voters fall in line with theirs. Democrats fully embraced Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBusiness coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees MORE after their respective nominations and enthusiastically voted them into office. In 2016, many Democrats did not warmly embrace Hillary Clinton and their lack of enthusiasm cost her the White House.
Republicans used to support presidential candidates, like Richard Nixon or George H.W. Bush that did not excite them, because these candidates had paid their dues. In the case of Bush, the Republican’s lack of enthusiasm turned to apathy and he lost his reelection bid. In the age of Trump, however, Republican voters have a cult-like support for the president that does not waver based on what he says or does. This creates an electoral floor for Trump that poses challenges for whomever the Democrats choose.
Democratic voters, however, appear to be still searching for that candidate they can follow all the way through until November 2020.
David B. McLennan is a professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College.