North Carolina will be a big battleground state in 2020

North Carolina will be a big battleground state in 2020
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Jimmy Carter carried North Carolina in 1976. Following that election, a generation of Democrats in the Tar Heel state did not pick up another win for their presidential candidate until 2008 with Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders top target at CPAC Obama warns against 'unauthorized use' of his image to mislead voters in cease-and-desist letter MORE. In 2008, Obama defeated John McCainJohn Sidney McCainFox's Britt McHenry confirms brain tumor, says she's got 'amazing medical team' President Trump is weak against Bernie Sanders in foreign affairs Appeals court refuses to throw out Joe Arpaio's guilty verdict after Trump pardon MORE by about 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million cast. At 49.7 percent to 49.4 percent, it was the second closest race of the 2008 election behind Missouri. In 2012, North Carolina was again the second closest race, this time behind Florida, as the state flipped Republican. Mitt Romney beat Obama by about 2 percent, although many pundits predicted Romney winning by a larger margin. In a race that went down to the wire, Donald Trump surged in the final week and won the state by 3.6 percent over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton to start new podcast Centrist Democrats insist Sanders would need delegate majority to win President Trump is weak against Bernie Sanders in foreign affairs MORE in 2016.

In 2016, Republicans also held on to Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSurveillance fight emerges as intelligence flashpoint Congress eyes killing controversial surveillance program John Ratcliffe back under consideration by Trump for top intel job MORE’s Senate seat, increased their majority in the state legislature and defeated two popular Democratic Council of State members. GOP leaders were quick to claim that North Carolina was back in the “solid south” that their party’s candidates have relied on since Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.” That view is shortsighted, however, as Democrat Roy Cooper defeated a sitting GOP governor, and rising Democratic star Josh Stein won the attorney general’s race. The margins in the legislature are also irrelevant to the analysis as the district lines created many uncontested races and gave Republicans a clear advantage.

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The only thing that 2016 showed us is that North Carolina remains in play for both parties. In 2020, a presidential campaign trying to reach 270 electoral votes cannot afford to ignore North Carolina. This will be especially true in a year where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisChamber looks to support Democratic allies in 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Nevada Top GOP super PAC spent money on NC Democrat MORE will both be on the ballot in their first reelection bids. Cooper will attempt to be the first North Carolina governor reelected since Democrat Mike Easley in 2004. Tillis will stand for reelection in a seat that has historically been a revolving door of one term senators, including popular figures such as Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 GOP braces for Democratic spending onslaught in battle for Senate Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump MORE.

The national parties and independent expenditure groups will zero in on these two races as they will be among the most hotly contested and expensive in the nation. Their focus will be squarely on North Carolina. This was certainly true in 2016 when Clinton and Trump essentially took up residency in the state. A week did not pass without one of their candidates or their surrogates barnstorming across North Carolina. Groups like Emily’s List poured resources to support Democrat Deborah Ross in her Senate race while the Human Rights Campaign put its efforts into defeating Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Television ads heavily concentrated in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania accounted for much of the $70 million that the NRA spent in 2016.

North Carolina political commentator Gary Pearce recently wrote in a column: “A national pollster who was doing surveys in North Carolina told me the Friday before Election Day that Clinton was sinking here and pulling down other Democrats. She started dropping when James Comey announced the FBI was reopening its email investigation.”

Nevertheless, the Clinton campaign’s analytical models showed that enough Clinton voters were out there for her to win the state. The challenge was getting them to the polls after a bruising Democratic primary and a divisive national election. The effect of Bernie SandersBernie SandersBloomberg: 'I'm going to stay right to the bitter end' of Democratic primary race The Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE and Trump on what should have been solid Clinton voters may never be known.

I raise this issue not to rehash the debate between analytics and more traditional polling. Instead, it shows that the final 2016 margin in North Carolina does not reflect how close this race was. It also shows that the Comey announcement could very well have affected those other down ballot races when voters made up their minds in the final hours and cast their lots with Trump.

North Carolina remains an evenly divided state. Unaffiliated voters moved past Republicans into second place on the registration lists this year. Voters are sending the signal that they want fresh faces, new ideas and politicians who will speak to their needs. This all adds up to a recipe for yet another electoral cycle focused on North Carolina.

This trend likely will not end anytime soon. Based on population projections, the state may gain an additional electoral vote after the 2020 presidential election. So, my fellow North Carolinians, be careful when you stop in for lunch at your favorite barbecue joint, the next president of the United States may very well be in there shaking hands and kissing babies.

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 adviser for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He is now a partner in the Raleigh, N.C., office and Washington, D.C., location of Parker Poe.