Welcome to The Battle For North Carolina, a series where we take you inside one of the most contentious states in 2016. Previously: Getting souls to the polls.
Ethel Mitchell thought Donald Trump was going to be here. “What?,” she said, her eyes widening. “He's not?” She was wearing a bright red Proud Deplorable shirt that she picked up just for the Conservative Rally in Smithfield on Friday night. In return, all she got was this lousy speech from Mike Pence. While he may be the party's vice-presidential candidate, Pence, who looks like a Ken doll who came to life and then retired after a long career of being a local sports newscaster, wasn't the reason hundreds of people were sitting in a tobacco warehouse in Eastern North Carolina. Trump was on everyone's minds. And in those brief moments when they weren't thinking about Trump, they were fantasizing about his imminent victory: This time, the new emails were definitely going to bring Hillary Clinton down. The “Lock Her Up” chants grew more plentiful as the sun set, blooming into life at almost the same rate as cheers for Clinton’s opponent.
Sure, they've heard all the stories about Trump and women, but it hasn't dampened their enthusiasm. “What he says doesn't bother me,” Rachel Price said. “The people who are upset, I'm sure they've heard worse.” Mitchell and her friend, Jeanette Morgan, agree. If Morgan ever met Donald, she would “grab him and squeeze him” herself. That way if anyone says anything, she can say it was her fault.
Johnston County, which is dominated by Republican officials and is nearly 80 percent white, holds its Conservative Rally every election cycle. It is farm country — hence the tobacco warehouse and its huge, safely Republican red banner that read, “Do Not Litter: Keep Tobacco Clean.” The area was walloped by Hurricane Matthew, and many roads closed because of the flooding. The excitement in the room was perhaps even more intense because everyone was just glad not to be stuck indoors anymore, even if it meant listening to many, many candidates talk after months of enduring this election.
For those down at the bottom of the ballot, these speeches mostly amounted to, “Other Customers Who Bought Trump Also Bought Me.” The best hope state representatives or commissioners or court candidates have for being elected in close races is for Trump to win. It was evident in the room: Sure, many attendees were coated with stickers from down-ballot candidates, but that swag was obscured by all the Trump signs. This left the room feeling like a wedding reception where the groomsmen told stories for hours even though everyone wanted it to end so they could dance. One speaker said Trump stands for “This Republican Understands My Problems,” a acrostic that no one would have imagined could have applied to Trump 10 years ago, when he was a Democratic reality TV host who once appeared on the front page of the New York Post with the headline, “Best Sex I've Ever Had.”
After getting the audience high on mentions of Trump, every speaker — speaking in front of an American flag so huge it might have been bigger than the one in Florida that got Trump in trouble — made sure to tell the crowd to vote, their cries growing increasingly demanding as the night went on. Get your friends, family, business associates, husband, boyfriend, and church friends to vote, they begged. Take 10 people with you, take 20 — spend Election Day getting your friends and family out to the polls. Vote, for heaven's sake. And, when you do, Governor Pat McCrory said, why not bring your voter ID, even if a federal court struck down the law? “If it's good enough for Sudafed,” he said to massive cheers, “it's good enough for [voting].”
Multiple speakers asked the crowd if they had voted already, sending half of the audience's arms in the air. According to the New York Times, this enthusiasm among Trump supporters seems to match what's happening statewide. White early voting turnout is up 15 percent in North Carolina. In a year where fewer early voting locations are available thanks to efforts by local Republican leaders, and the NAACP is suing the state after voters have been purged from the rolls at the last minute, black turnout is down 16 percent. When the stage wasn't hosting The Trump Car-Waxing Hour, time was reserved for shaking one's head at kneeling during the national anthem at football games, being nostalgic about a world in which “little boys always go to the men's room and little girls always go to the women's room,” and reminding anyone who might be skeptical about Trump to not forget the Supreme Court.
Earlier in the week, with only 13 days to go until the election, Bill Clinton's North Carolina bus tour stopped in Wilmington, a port city about 100 miles south of Smithfield. He told the assembled crowd to give a hand to the Trump protesters yelling over his speech. They had, he deadpanned, had a rough few weeks. There was little evidence of that in Smithfield, where the FBI emails had changed everything — or at least proved to those in attendance that they were right all along. Here, the polls were wrong, and no one knew anyone who was voting for Clinton. On top of that, the Republicans in North Carolina had been winning with increasing frequency. In a year with a presidential candidate as great as Donald Trump, there was no way this trend could be reversed. Right?
The mood may have been buoyant, but the race for North Carolina is still close. FiveThirtyEight gives Clinton a 51.2 percent chance of winning the state. The precarious ideological balance of government was most visible when McCrory and Senator Richard Burr, both sprinting to the end of close races, spoke. Like many Republican gubernatorial and senate candidates across the country, they hope they can win regardless of what happens with the guy on the top of the ticket. After convincing a room full of older voters to do the wave — not once, but twice — McCrory spent much of his speech talking about his efforts to clean up the state after Hurricane Matthew. Mostly ignoring Trump didn't mean they avoided the other candidate who was also exciting conservative voters, or trying to make their opponents synonymous with Clinton in the process. Burr began his speech by pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket, which he announced was the letter from FBI Director James Comey concerning the new Clinton emails. He then moved on to Deborah Ross, the Democratic senate challenger. “I'm running against a woman who's a liar,” he said, to cautious laughter. “I can say it, I've said it on TV.” After a few more minutes, someone shouted “Lock her up!” At this rate, it seems likely the most passionate GOP voters will want all Democrats in jail by next Tuesday.
The rally was fun, but Jeanette Morgan is ready for the election to end so Trump can get started. So is Ethel Mitchell, although, she is a bit worried. No canvassers have come by her house asking her to vote for Trump, and she hardly sees any ads on TV. “He needs people campaigning for him” — especially, Morgan adds, because “Hillary is so crooked, she's going to try everything to try and win.” There were many more volunteers campaigning in Johnston County back when Romney was running, she said. “The one time I thought there was someone at the door,” Morgan says, laughing, “it turned out it was just Ethel!”