Voters wait in line outside the Herbert C. Young Community Center in Cary, N.C. on the first day of early voting on, Oct. 15, 2020.
Ethan Hyman—The News and Observer/AP
October 27, 2020 2:04 PM EDT

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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. 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. Nationally, Trump is now trailing among suburban voters, 56% to 42%, according to a PBS NewsHour/ NPR/ Marist poll.

Most of that slide is among college-educated women. Trump lost that group by just 6 percentage points in 2016 nationally. Now? He’s down by 37 percentage points coast to coast.

But there are other demographic trends at play in the state that may hurt Trump as well. Between 1990 and 2010, Charlotte and Raleigh had the biggest growth in Hispanic populations of any metro area in America. That adds raw numbers of reliably Democratic voters. The 2016 exit polls found Trump carried native North Carolinians by 13 percentage points, while Clinton led transplants by 7 points. There’s no reason to believe that dichotomy will change, even if the newcomers’ numbers continue to grow.

All the while, the Republican brand in the state seems heading back to the age of Jesse Helms, and not that of Elizabeth Dole. Conservatives have continued their drumbeat against the state’s long-simmering progressive and moderate inclinations, leading to a pretty fierce backlash at the statehouse and the ballot box. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is running for re-election as his colleague Richard Burr is under an ethics cloud over stock sales. (Tillis’ Democratic challenger is facing sexting allegations that have hurt him, but not disqualified him from the race.)

These days, Trump seems to have recognized the troubles he and his party face in the ‘burbs. Instead of chasing these voters — especially college-educated women — he seems to be making a play to juice his base. Last week, he traveled to rural Gaston County, which he won by a 2-to-1 margin four years earlier. In North Carolina, it seems like Trump’s is a game of rallying die-hard supporters, and not one of winning anyone back.

To that end, Trump and his allies are spending more on TV in North Carolina than in Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio or Nevada, according to an NPR analysis. The only places where Trump has spent more than North Carolina are Florida and Pennsylvania. For Trump, the state is part of a shaky path that is like drawing an inside-straight without Pennsylvania: North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan and Iowa.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of votes coming in is already staggering. Democrats are out-pacing Republicans asking for mail-in ballots by a 2-to-1 margin in North Carolina, and they have a narrow lead in early in-person voting. Analysts estimate as much as 75% of the entire state vote could be in-hand before polls even open on Nov. 3. Two years ago, that number was 51%.

Correction Oct. 27

The original version of this story misstated the Republican Senator running for re-election in North Carolina. It is Thom Tillis, not Richard Burr.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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