The political consensus is virtually unanimous: If Hillary Clinton wins North Carolina, Donald Trump has to win every other competitive state to take the White House.
Clinton has other paths to victory without North Carolina, but the state has been a focus for Democrats this cycle. She has led in most public opinion polling there since the summer. Just 12 days ago, a New York Times poll had her leading by 7 points, and the CNN poll of polls currently has her ahead by 4 points.
But a CNN analysis of early voting paints a very different picture and suggests that Clinton has underperformed President Obama’s 2012 performance in the Tar Heel State and Trump has outperformed Mitt Romney.
It might seem that Democrats have built up a big early lead. More than 1.3 million Democrats have already voted compared to 990,000 Republicans. But the raw numbers don’t account for the 2012 results. President Barack Obama built an early lead then but got trounced by Mitt Romney on Election Day
As of Saturday, the final day of early voting, slightly fewer Democrats had cast ballots while 125,000 more Republicans have voted this time. If this election shapes up like the last, Donald Trump would win North Carolina. There is one key difference that complicates the data: Independent voters came out this time in droves. They cast nearly 810,000 votes, up a whopping 42% from 2012.
This group broke heavily for Romney in 2012. However, he was a more traditional Republican. Romney himself has been one of Trump’s harshest critics, saying last spring “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud.” One difference this election is the popularity of a third-party candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson. The CNN poll of polls show him garnering 5% support among likely voters.
Other early voting trends favor Trump. While polls show Clinton has a commanding lead among African Americans, the share of black votes so far is down 5 percentage points. Trump does much better with white voters, who increased their share by 22% this election. The North Carolina Republican Party, in a statement Monday, bragged about the changes in turnout as a sign of the “North Carolina Obama coalition crumbling.”
Another group that failed to show up was 20-something Democrats. The North Carolina Board of Elections releases data on each voter. CNN compared registered voters who voted early in both 2012 and 2016.
One third of Democrats age 22 to 29 who voted in 2012 failed to show up this time. By comparison, turnout of Democrats age 50 and older exceeded 90%. Twenty-something Republicans were more enthusiastic. Nearly three quarters of them who voted early in 2012 showed up again this election.
There have been complaints that election officials have tried to suppress votes of Democrats. The NAACP sued three counties in North Carolina for canceling the registrations of about 4,500 eligible voters.
The registrations were challenged based “exclusively on mass mailings that were returned as undeliverable.” Early voting data, however, shows less than 200 votes in those counties were thrown out due to cancellations.
Critics have also complained of a lack of early voting sites in Democrat strongholds. Early-voting data show the busiest voting sites, with longer waits, were mostly in predominately Democratic locations. Of the 25 busiest voting sites, Democrats outnumbered Republicans at 19 of them, according to CNN’s analysis.
At the Herbert C. Young Community Center in Wake County — where two Democrats voted for every Republican — more than 32,000 votes were cast, the most of any location. The average site had about 6,700 voters.