Campaigns ramp up efforts ahead of Election Day
With less than a week to go before the general election, campaigns for public offices big and small are seeing a flurry of activity as final preparations are made to get out the vote.
But though Election Day is Tuesday, many residents have already cast their ballots this year through early voting procedures, which run until Saturday.
Chris Cooper, head of Western Carolina University’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs, said some insights can be gleaned from reviewing those early and absentee ballots.
“To me, one kind of interesting story is the new polling place at WCU that just opened. We’ve never had it before. That one opened early, and we had 465 voters yesterday, which outpaced the Cullowhee center,” Cooper said last Friday. “What's interesting to me is the unaffiliated votes — 41 percent of people there were unaffiliated.”
That figure is also noteworthy when viewed next to registration totals at other polling places in Jackson County — WCU’s polling station had 35.8 percent of its early voter turnout registered as unaffiliated as of Tuesday morning, more than 5 percent higher than anywhere else in the county aside from the Cashiers polling station, which saw 33.8 percent unaffiliated voter turnout.
Across the county, early and absentee voters have leaned heavily to the left with 44.9 percent of ballots cast coming from registered Democrats, 25.5 percent coming from registered Republicans, 29.2 percent coming from unaffiliated voters and 0.4 percent coming from registered Libertarians.
Cooper said these figures don’t always paint an accurate picture of election day totals, however, as Democrats have historically been more likely to vote early than Republicans.
The significant turnout for unaffiliated voters at the campus polling station, outpacing registered Republicans and coming up only two votes short of the registered Democrat turnout, is indicative of a larger trend though, Cooper said.
“It says that young people are increasingly likely to register as unaffiliated,” he said. “What we don’t know is how they’ll vote. But, in general, it’s part of a microcosm. It’s part of this trend of young people claiming less and less attachment to a political party.”
The uncertainty that comes with such a large percentage of unaffiliated voters casting their ballots is a contributing factor in what Cooper says is one of the most competitive races across the state — the North Carolina District 50 Senate race between Republican Jim Davis and Democratic challenger Jane Hipps.
“As far as state races, on the senate side there are eight races across the state that are potentially competitive,” Cooper said. “One is N.C. 50, the Jane Hipps-Jim Davis race. Davis is certainly the favorite, he’s an incumbent going on his fourth term, but at the same time it’s a fairly competitive district.”
Cooper said the North Carolina District 119 House race between Democrat Joe Sam Queen and Republican Mike Clampitt could also potentially be competitive since the district is much more evenly split along partisan lines than many other districts throughout the state, but early indicators have the incumbent Queen ahead by a more comfortable margin than Davis holds in his contest.
As far as North Carolina’s role in the presidential race is concerned, there is some degree of uncertainty throughout the state as a whole. Cooper said most polls at this point show Hillary Clinton ahead by a moderate amount.
“For the president, the national polls right now have Hillary up by six or seven points,” he said. “Most North Carolina polls have her up as well. That said, in Western North Carolina, Buncombe will go for Clinton, but the vast majority will go to Trump.”
The wildcards in the region, Cooper said, will be counties with large student populations.
“For me, the two question marks are Jackson and Watauga,” he said. “There could be other factors, but I think the clear thing is the universities and everything that comes around a university. Even if it’s not students and those working there, it’s the types of businesses and the kind of people that tend to migrate to those areas.”
Regardless of the outcome on Tuesday, Cooper said a number of factors have made this election cycle unlike any seen in this country before. Political outsider Trump’s influence on the tone and structure of campaigns throughout the nation are a far cry from the traditional process for either party.
“I think it’s hard to overstate the importance of Donald Trump,” Cooper said. “No candidate has ever driven the news cycle as well as he has. I think he has changed, at least temporarily, how parties behave. We’re not used to seeing this kind of intraparty fighting. Love him or hate him, it’s an extraordinary phenomenon.”
The media’s role in the election has changed substantially as well, Cooper said, as more and more individuals turn to social media and the candidates themselves for information.
“Part of it is the media used to be perceived as outside of politics,” Cooper said. “I think this election has been the zenith of that idea that the media is a player. I think, to be frank, Trump has fanned those flames. He’s made them into a central player.”
Adding to the influx of information available to voters is the unprecedented use of social media by the campaigns themselves.
“I think the candidates’ ability to go directly to the population, unfiltered, through Twitter and Facebook has changed things,” Cooper said. “Now, journalists are covering people’s Twitter feeds the way they covered releases before.”
Whether the conversation is happening on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds or the pages of newspapers, though, Cooper said the topics of discussion in this area focus on a small handful of key issues. More than any other factor, it seems, candidates’ plans for economic growth and responsible development seem to define their platform in the western part of the state.
“To me, a lot of it is about economic development and growth,” he said. “So how do you develop the region economically, but minimize the negative impact of growth. I think, to me, most of the most important discussions are around those issues.”
How different counties perceive the path forward on economic growth and development varies somewhat in the region, with some counties seeking to push forward with development and attract jobs and residents while others attempt to refine existing development initiatives to ensure growth occurs at a manageable rate.
“That varies by county,” Cooper said. “Graham and Cherokee county are losing population quickly, so the question is how to do this economic development. But then, in Jackson that hasn’t quite seen that hemorrhaging of citizens, the question is how do we grow smartly and effectively?”