SELMA, N.C. — “Hillary For Prison 2016,” the sticker read, “INFOWARS.” It goes for $4.95 on the conspiracy site’s online store (though it’s currently on sale or $1.95) and on Thursday, it was stuck on the back of a nondescript midsize car speeding in front of me in Raleigh, North Carolina, the first sign of political activity I witnessed all of two minutes after getting on the highway. Things aren’t going well here for the Democratic nominee, and this was the first reminder.
North Carolina, where Mitt Romney won in 2012 by just two percentage points, is ground zero for the campaign storyline that “the race is tightening.” What voters decide here could potentially decide the fate of the next four years.
To win the election, Donald Trump needs 270 electoral votes, a feat he couldn’t manage without the Tar Heel State, even if he won every state Romney won, plus Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, Iowa and Ohio. He can’t afford to lose here, in other words, but in the last several weeks, the tide has shifted in his favor: where Hillary Clinton once consistently led the polls, albeit by a small margin, he’s taken over. A Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday gave him a two-point advantage. In the Real Clear Politics average, he’s ahead by one point.
At Optimist Park in Raleigh, people streamed into the gym to vote early on Thursday afternoon.
Todd Thraikill, 50, told me he’d be voting for the Republican ticket, but not because he likes the nominee.
“Not really,” he said when I asked if he supports Trump. “His views align more closely,” he explained of his decision. “Both of ‘em bother me,” he said, but he added that “everything” about Clinton bothers him.
Patrick Lincoln, 28, said he was voting for Clinton, but similarly felt no enthusiasm. “Basically lesser of two evils for me, I know it’s a cliché answer,” he said. “Actually, I grew up a Republican, so my father can’t know that I’m voting for her.”
Trump, he said, is a “joke,” but in North Carolina, “he’ll probably do pretty well.”
According to The New York Times, almost two million votes have already been cast here, and the data favors Clinton, despite Trump’s recent vault up the polls. Democrats are more likely to be early voters, although the number of registered Democrats has declined in the state while Republicans have increased. A man passing out literature for the Democrats who declined to say his name but claimed to be an environmental lawyer originally from Philadelphia, said he wouldn’t dare predict who would win, but he noted enthusiastically that many people were accepting his flyers featuring the Democratic slate.
At field offices around town, volunteers made calls and met before going out to knock doors. At a Tae Kwon Do studio in Cary, they sat around plastic tables working amid dozens of signs and pieces of campaign literature advertising the Republican slate. At a building in North Raleigh, across from a senior center, lawn signs prevented any light from getting into the office, which was cluttered with Trump t-shirts and a life-size cutout.
Early this week, both candidates dispatched their surrogates—Ivanka and Lara for Trump, President Obama for Clinton—to make their case on the ground. On Thursday, they campaigned here themselves, Trump at a wedding venue nestled amid sprawling farmland in Selma, and Clinton with Bernie Sanders and Pharrell, the musician with a penchant for wearing pajamas in public.
In a conference call on Friday, the Clinton campaign painted a rosier picture of the race here, telling reporters that early voting “turnout has been high.”
Marlon Marshall, the Director of States and Political Engagement for the Clinton campaign, said turnout among black voters was ticking after initial complaints about too few early voting centers in predominantly black neighborhoods. The Times reported that black early voting turnout has dipped to 23 percent, from 28 percent in 2012.
Marshall also said the campaigns surrogates had bolstered the campaign’s presence in recent days.
“Having our surrogates there, having the president in North Carolina, everything that we are doing is reaching out to our core coalition…and I think that it’s helped one, catch up and two, I think you are going to continue to see early voting increase over the next few days.”
Also speaking to his core coalition? Our clementine-colored overlord.
“In five days we’re going to win the great state of North Carolina!” Trump told the crowd in Selma. “We’re gonna win back the White House, believe me!”
They cheered without a bit of skepticism.
They started streaming into the venue—a big patch of grass with a concert stage and fried food vendors set up—four hours before the event was scheduled to start. At this point, Trump rallies feel like some combination of a farewell tour and a bullfight. Families walk around like they’re attending a fair, and old men in Confederate regalia like they’re attending a revolution.
Trump delivered a subdued version of his stump speech, hitting on his greatest hits. “Oh, we will build the wall, don’t worry about it. it will be a great wall, it will be a real wall,” he said. When he criticized the media, “the world’s most dishonest people,” incorrectly, for not turning the cameras to show the scope of the crowd, one foreign reporter turned to blow kisses at the crowd from behind the barricade. Meanwhile, some of his fans were irritated that the cameras were in their way. “Move the camera!” they shouted.
“She’s disqualified,” Trump said of Clinton, calling her “the most dishonest person ever to run for office.” The crowd chanted “LOCK HER UP!”
“Who’s gonna vote on Tuesday?” he asked. “Who’s already voted?”
When he walked offstage, fireworks erupted.
A celebration that is still rather premature.
Contributing: Jackie Kucinich