KAPPLER: Battleground North Carolina

Before the 2008 election, North Carolina’s outcome in the presidential contest was almost always a foregone conclusion. In 2008, the concept of North Carolina as a presidential battleground state was so unfamiliar to the national press that I heard stories saying they kept pulling their reporters out of the state, then sending them back. President Obama ultimately eked out a 0.4 percent win over Sen. John McCain. The 2008 presidential race in North Carolina was the second-closest in the country (just behind Missouri, which McCain very narrowly won).In 2012, North Carolina was more squarely on the electoral radar. While Obama narrowly lost North Carolina in that election, it was once again the second- closest contest in the country (Florida was a bit closer), and more was spent on TV advertising here — $97 million — than all but three other states (Florida, Virginia, and Ohio).That brings us to 2016. Barring some cataclysmic event, the Republican nominee will be Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee will be Hillary Clinton. It’s time to take stock: is North Carolina a battleground state once again?Several major national media outlets maintain race ratings for each state in the presidential contest. Reporters and analysts aggregate data and talk with sources across the political spectrum in order to come up with their ratings. Of the eight credible organizations that have released race ratings, seven of them have North Carolina a “toss up” and one categorizes the state as “leans Democratic.” At this point, there is broad consensus that North Carolina is competitive.And while it’s still relatively early yet, there is enough polling data for two frequently cited websites to have polling averages for the presidential contest in North Carolina. In the Real Clear Politics polling aggregator, Trump has a 1 point lead in the state, and the Huffington Post/Pollster data set has Trump with a slightly larger average lead of 1.7 points. In polling terms, it’s hard to distinguish that data from a tie, especially at this early date in the political calendar.Perhaps the most valuable asset a campaign has is the candidate’s time. Where a presidential candidate is holding campaign events is an important sign of which states they perceive as winnable with enough effort, and we recently got a couple of good indications that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns see North Carolina as within reach. Donald Trump held a rally in Greensboro on June 14, and Hillary Clinton came to Raleigh on June 22. If we see repeat visits from the candidates, this won’t be because they just love North Carolina barbeque.And along these lines, hallmarks of most modern presidential campaigns are TV ads and large staffs strategically located in campaign field offices around contested states. It’s a bit early yet for General Election campaign advertising to start in earnest and a complete network of campaign offices to be built out, but how many ads you see and how many staffers are hired will give you a good sense if the campaigns believe the state is within reach or not. One clue: Clinton’s campaign has spent $3.7 million on ads in N.C. in June and July, the third most of any state so far.Finally, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the quickly established new normal in races is for well-financed outside organizations to spend heavily on ads and other activities once reserved for political parties and campaigns. Already we’ve seen one notable Democratically aligned outside organization — Priorities USA — commit to spending $9 million on TV ads in North Carolina through the election.Judging by the actions of the candidates, their campaigns, and the data available to us at the moment, it seems clear that North Carolina begins the General Election phase of the 2016 campaign among the battleground states. However, in the context of modern presidential campaigns, things can change rapidly and conventional wisdom can fall by the wayside quickly. Just because the best information available to us now points in this direction, it’s not locked in that trajectory. For now, it appears both sides are suiting up in the Tarheel State.Jonathan Kappler is a graduate of the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership and earned a master’s degree in public policy from American University and a political science degree from Appalachian State University. He lives in Chapel Hill.