How can the Democratic Party hope to win North Carolina’s 16 electoral votes for president next year?

Yes, North Carolina has been actively contested since 2008, when it went for Barack Obama by less than a percentage point. Since then, North Carolinians have opted for Republican candidates, albeit by narrow margins: two points in 2012, 3.7 points in 2016, and 1.3 points in 2020.

Still, Joe Biden is extremely unpopular here. In a new John Locke Foundation poll, 59% of likely voters disapprove of his job performance while only 36% approve. Among unaffiliated North Carolinians, he’s under water by 29% to 66%.

Other surveys conducted last month show similar results. In a Meredith College poll of registered NC voters, Biden was at 42% approval to 56% disapproval. In a High Point University poll, the ratio was 34% to 55%. In a Morning Consult/Bloomberg News poll, 39% of NC voters expressed a favorable view of Biden and 59% expressed an unfavorable one.

These are dismal numbers for an incumbent president. North Carolinians now know Joe Biden well. Most don’t think he’s done a good job so far, and other polls confirm that most voters think he’s too old to be running for reelection. So, if Biden is the Democratic nominee next year, the outcome — at least here in North Carolina — would seem to be a foregone conclusion.

Except that it isn’t. Remember that North Carolina’s state motto is esse quam videri. Taken from the ancient Roman statesman Cicero’s famous essay On Friendship, it means “to be rather than to seem.”

Biden is unpopular. But so is Donald Trump, though he’s currently leading his GOP rivals for the 2024 nomination. In that same Morning Consult/Bloomberg News poll, completed in early November, 53% of registered NC voters had an unfavorable view of Trump and 44% a favorable one.

As I’ve observed before, North Carolinians appear to want someone other than Biden and Trump to be the next president. Quite a few Democratic-leaning independents, and perhaps even some registered Democrats, would choose a GOP nominee over Biden if that nominee isn’t Trump. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, for example, currently leads Biden by four percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent national surveys.

Similarly, quite a few Republican-leaning independents, and perhaps even some registered Republicans, would choose a Democratic nominee over Trump if that nominee isn’t Biden (or Vice President Kamala Harris).

I know these are only hypotheticals. Right now, Biden and Trump seem destined to win their respective party’s nominations. I return again to esse quam videri.

Several savvy political operatives I know, from across the political spectrum, tell me they wouldn’t be shocked to see Biden wait until most or all of the Democratic primaries and caucuses are over and then announce, probably for health reasons, that he’s decided it would be in the best interest of his family and his country to end his service at one term. Perhaps Biden endorses a successor and urges the delegates committed to him to endorse that successor at the Democratic National Convention. Or perhaps he stays entirely neutral. I’ve heard the scenario described both ways.

Moreover, remember that interspersed among the GOP primaries and causes next year will be trials or other court appearances at which Donald Trump’s various legal, ethical, and personal vulnerabilities will receive copious media attention. Anyone who tells you they know precisely how these events will affect the Trump candidacy is either fibbing or fantasizing.

So, here’s how I answer my initial question. How can the Democratic Party hope to win North Carolina’s 16 electoral votes for their presidential candidate next year? If the race pits Joe Biden against Donald Trump, they can hope late-deciding voters are thinking more about the latter’s foibles than the former’s fumbles. If the race pits a fresh Democratic face against Donald Trump, their prospects for success soar.

And if it’s Biden vs. Haley, they can just forget the whole thing.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.