Many voters in swing-state North Carolina are disengaged. Party activists hope to fire them up

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OXFORD, N.C. (AP) — She opens the door wearing a gray tank top, Hello Kitty pajama pants and pink fuzzy slippers. With her 6-year-old son standing quietly beside her, she listens patiently as Liz Purvis begins discussing what’s at stake in the election this November.

The woman, Cynthia, tells Purvis she doesn’t watch the news or even know who the president is. When Purvis, the 31-year-old chair of the Democratic Party in Granville County, North Carolina, tells her that a White House rematch looms between Democratic President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Cynthia lets out a laugh, then an expletive.

Such is the state of the 2024 election, as seen at the ground level. In this rural county in one of the states expected to help decide the presidency, the nuts-and-bolts efforts of party activists to generate election enthusiasm are sometimes met with indifference and even disgust from people who could be positioned to play an outsize role in determining the nation’s course.

North Carolina voters also are deciding a groundbreaking and closely contested governor’s race. Democrat Josh Stein would be the state’s first Jewish governor while Republican Mark Robinson, who would become its first Black chief executive. Robinson, endorsed with gusto by Trump as “Martin Luther King on steroids,” has a history of controversial public statements regarded by critics as either homophobic or antisemitic. He has vigorously defended his past remarks.

For now, Cynthia and many others aren’t paying much attention to elections at all.

‘More hopeful in general’

About 4 in 10 Americans in a Pew Research Center poll conducted in April said they are not following news about candidates in the presidential election, closely or at all. And many in the United States already find the election exhausting, even if they are not tuned in. About 6 in 10 U.S. adults in the poll said they are worn out by so much campaign and candidate coverage.

Purvis, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter on a recent canvassing trip, was near downtown Oxford, the seat of a county of about 62,000 people wedged between Raleigh and the Virginia border, and had knocked on five doors without an answer by the time she got to Cynthia, who declined to give her last name to maintain her privacy.

By the end of a sweltering, breezeless Saturday, Granville County Democrats had knocked on 320 doors in their Memorial Day weekend canvassing campaign. It was the highest amount by any Democratic county party in the state that day.

As of June 7, Democrats had outspent Republicans on advertising in North Carolina by a nearly 4-to-1 margin, according to AdImpact data, and they have far more slots reserved between now and November. They also appear to have dedicated more resources to ground-level efforts such as door-knocking.

That leaves party activists like Purvis feeling optimistic about a state where Trump prevailed twice, though his margin narrowed between 2016 and 2020. The Biden campaign clearly sees an opportunity there and the president already has made three trips to the Tar Heel State this year.

“I’m more hopeful for North Carolina in general than I have been in years past,” Purvis said. “I think Granville County has great potential to be part of that.”

Both presidential campaigns are prioritizing rural voters, and North Carolina has the second highest rural population behind Texas. In 2020, only 14 rural North Carolina counties voted for Biden; the state’s 64 others backed Trump. Almost 53% of the Granville County vote went to Trump, slightly more than in 2016. Democrat Barack Obama carried the county in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

Only six North Carolina counties pivoted from Obama to Trump.

Granville County sits on the outskirts of Raleigh and Durham, and some residents drive on Interstate 85 or two-lane roads that wind through the countryside to commute to work in North Carolina’s bustling Triangle area. Granville has five municipalities and manufacturing plants for Revlon, Bridgestone and others.

Further down the ballot, county voters could help determine whether the GOP maintains its state legislative supermajority.

“Is it a teeter totter back and forth, or is it just that we happened to catch it at the moment where it was going Republican anyway? We don’t know yet, right?” said Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper. “That’s what we’re going to learn after November.”

Cooper isn’t sure Biden will win in such places but he thinks the margins matter. That’s because they will determine what he needs in the state’s urban areas, which tend to favor Democrats.

“It’s not realistic to think that the Democrats will win rural North Carolina. They won’t, they’ll lose,” Cooper said. “The question is: How big do they lose?”

Challenges for North Carolina Democrats

Rural voters are an important part of Biden’s campaign in North Carolina, according to North Carolina communications director Dory MacMillan. The president is promoting administration efforts on infrastructure and rural health care, including a more than $9 billion investment from the federal infrastructure law.

Still, rural North Carolina poses unique political challenges for Democrats, whose voter registration numbers in places like Granville are declining. Most rural counties in North Carolina won by Trump in 2016 saw the margins widen in 2020.

Then there’s the unpredictable impact of Trump’s historic conviction in his New York hush money trial last month.

North Carolina Republicans expect the verdict to drive conservative voters to the polls. Both the state party and Trump’s campaign decried the trial as a “sham,” with national campaign press secretary Karoline Leavitt saying it would not stop the former president from increasing “voter enthusiasm in battleground states.”

State GOP chair Jason Simmons said Democrats have “really abandoned rural communities.” Republicans plan to use existing county infrastructure to engage with rural voters and recruit more volunteers ahead of the election, he said.

State Rep. Frank Sossamon, a longtime pastor and the county’s Republican incumbent, is counting on trust he has built in the community to see him through. His campaign has not kicked into full gear yet, though he has been reminding voters he’s up for reelection.

“What I did before and what I’ll do now will be grassroots,” Sossamon said. “I’ll go to people. I’ll look them in the eyes. I’ll make them aware of what I’ve done.”

Making face-to-face engagement a priority

In a “building year” for state Democrats, the party’s 26-year-old chair, Anderson Clayton, said its rural speaking tour, which kicked off April 22 in Pasquotank County, is part of a big effort to make contact with voters. A smaller, two-day tour took Biden’s state campaign team to rural eastern North Carolina to speak with Black community leaders and open two offices.

Baba Kerr, a 64-year-old math teacher, said Democrats need to “step it up” to match the energy he saw in the Black community when Obama ran for president. Face-to-face engagement with Granville’s Black community — about 31% of the county’s population — will be crucial.

“We can’t just sit back and just think that it’s going to be automatic,” said Kerr, who is Black. “We got to talk to folks and get them to the polls.”

The fight to win over Granville County voters has come to the Oxford doorstep of 85-year-old Mary Wright. Both parties have visited. Wright said she has never voted one party down the ballot but will not vote for Trump — a decision she made in 2016 after the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape of the former president bragging about sexually groping women.

Canvassing was harder in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagement, but Democrats are prioritizing it this time.

Ellen Hammond, a 40-year-old Butner resident, was one of about 15 people knocking on doors in Granville County. It was her first time canvassing but she plans to do it again. She said the political divide has made people less inclined to talk to their neighbors.

“It’s scary but it’s also invigorating at the same time, especially when the interactions are so positive,” Hammond said.

Interacting with residents also gets to the heart of what matters to them. For Cynthia, it is her children.

As she watches her son — who left the 10-minute conversation with Purvis to go ride his kick scooter — Cynthia talks about her concerns of bullying and overstuffed public school classrooms. After a few minutes of friendly banter, Purvis invites Cynthia to the county party’s next meeting.

She smiles and nods, but makes no commitment.

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The Associated Press’ chief elections analyst, Chad Day, polling editor Amelia Thomson DeVeaux and polling reporter Linley Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.

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