(The Center Square) – Audiences and strategy differ as the North Carolina battleground gets a June warming for the 2024 presidential race with nearly synchronous visits by President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
All are in the state and will be creating new sound and video bytes in a roughly 36-hour period starting Friday and culminating Saturday night.
“It’s a signal that Biden and his campaign still views the state as a potential investment for November 2024, but that investment needs to start now with a ground-game operation beyond the classic ad war campaign that blankets North Carolina,” veteran political observer Michael Bitzer wrote in an email to The Center Square.
Trump, Pence and DeSantis headline the state Republican Party’s annual convention in Greensboro, its biggest annual fundraiser. DeSantis is the keynote speaker Friday evening, Pence is at noon Saturday, and Trump is in the Saturday night climax.
That lineup announcement has since been followed by Biden scheduling a trip to the Old North State. He’ll be in Rocky Mount hyping his Roadmap to Support Good Jobs, “a collaborative agency effort to align on guideposts to build the workforce,” and he’ll also go aboard Fort Liberty, the Army base formerly known as Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville.
Carter Wrenn, Raleigh-based political consultant and columnist who worked with former President Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and ’80s and was an advisor to U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, says there is an economically advantageous opportunity for the GOP trio and a definite need for their presidential foe from Delaware.
“On the Democrat side, we’re a swing state,” Wrenn said in a phone call with The Center Square. “There’s not but five or six swing states. We’re one of them. How we go in the presidential election next year is a big thing. Every statewide election here, where the candidates spend money, they end up being close.
“The Democrat reason for coming here is we’re a swing state. They’re lusting to win North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania – that’s where they’re going to put their attention. That’s it for Biden.”
While the audience is in the thousands for Trump, Pence and DeSantis, they get an advantage of extensive press coverage without having to spend campaign money for rallies, Wrenn says. And for the state GOP, tickets should sell.
“The reason the three Republicans are coming, of the primary states we’re one of the 10 biggest,” Wrenn said. “We’ve moved up to Super Tuesday.
“It’s not the convention itself that gets a lot of impact, but it will get press coverage all over the state and on social media. If you’re Pence, or DeSantis or Trump, going to the North Carolina state convention gets you free publicity where it doesn’t cost you anything. And it’s in a bigger state primary and that matters to you.”
Bitzer – the professor of politics and history at Catawba College and longtime politico of elections, campaigns and historical perspectives of the South – says the trio gets to “make their pitch before the most engaged voters and activists within the NC GOP.”
“A few things that I’ll be interested in seeing is the scale of support for the former president compared against his two potential major rivals at this point in the process,” Bitzer wrote in his email. “Trump’s hold on the Republican party’s primary base is one key question, and whether he would make any endorsements at this event for North Carolina governor or other office would be key to watch as well.
“If we take the 2022 GOP primary for U.S. Senate as a sign of Trump’s influence, well over half of the voters picked Ted Budd who got Trump’s endorsement, with the other 10% or so picking Mark Walker who was in the ‘Trump lane,’ thus making 2/3 of the GOP primary voters backing a Trump-aligned candidate in that contest.”
Wrenn also noted a key takeaway would be the impact on the real audiences sought by the four candidates. Polling shows significant majorities do not want Biden or Trump as president, he said, so “if DeSantis ends up being the nominee, it’s tougher on Biden.”
“They know what they dislike about Trump, so if it’s DeSantis, Democrats have a tougher time winning the general election,” Wrenn said. “If it’s Trump, they’ve got to figure out how to get folks to hold their nose and vote for Biden.”
Wrenn describes three groups affiliated with Trump. There’s about 33% to 35% that are “solid, favorable” with him; there’s “anti-Trumpsters, about 15 to 20%, they’re going to pick whoever they think is the alternative,” and there’s a swing group.
“If you ask about Trump,” Wrenn says of the swing group, “they say he’s OK. They see his faults but oppose Biden by a mile. If Trump gets that group, he makes Biden his nemesis. And DeSantis, he has to find a way to move that group away from Trump and at the same time, chip into his base. Right now, people say Trump has it won and I think it’s a race that could flip and change a lot. If someone does well in a debate, they could take off and get traction quickly.”
Another takeaway by late Saturday evening, Wrenn and Bitzer each said, could be if political punches are thrown. Wrenn notes DeSantis sat back for months after the midterms and Trump’s filing and punching and has now lifted his gloves a bit.
“Trump will be Trump, saying how ‘I’m way ahead, I’m great and I’m wonderful,’” Wrenn predicted. “The real question is what Pence and DeSantis will do. If Trump wraps DeSantis, DeSantis has been responsive. If Trump punches, I would guess he’ll punch back. Same way with Pence, though he’s less combative.”
Bitzer believes many will be checking Friday to see if DeSantis decides “to go publicly aggressive against the former president,” which would surely draw a return fire no later than Saturday night.
Biden’s visit could also be something of a test, to see if North Carolina is worth the investment of the few precious swing states.
“Considering that North Carolina was the ‘bluest’ red state that went for Trump in 2020 (and by only 1.35 percent, or less than 75,000 votes),” Bitzer wrote, “the question about North Carolina in 2024 is whether the Biden campaign and national Democrats will make a stronger effort in the state to potentially flip it, or will they make North Carolina a ‘bride’s maid’ swing state and miss the mark by another razor’s thin edge.”
North Carolina has 16 electoral college votes, same as Georgia and three less than Pennsylvania. Michigan (15), Arizona (11) and Wisconsin (10) are within the top-tier discussion.
Wrenn said swing voters are in sight of the Biden camp. North Carolina’s more than 7 million registered voters, as of Saturday, is 35.9% unaffiliated, 33.1% Democrats and 30.2% Republican. At the last presidential election, it was 35.6% Democrats, 33.3% unaffiliated and 30.3% Republicans.
“He’s going to be focused on swing voters,” Wrenn said. “He’s going to say things he thinks will help him win the independent swing voters.”