With Election Day approaching, Erin Murphy says she is ready to make her voice heard.

“This election means a lot more, because of what we’re going through and what we’ve experienced,” she said.

Murphy works at Peddler’s Paradise, a locally owned shop in downtown Monroe, North Carolina that sells craft goods and either items.

She says the economy is one of the main issues influencing her vote. “There are so many families struggling and so many small businesses struggling,” she said.

Voters like Murphy are potentially key this election year in North Carolina. She is a suburban voter, living in Union County.

Suburbs nationwide trended blue in the 2018 midterms, helping flip the U.S. House of Representatives into Democratic control. Those same communities could be make or break this year’s presidential contest, paving the way for a Trump or Biden victory.

This story is part of a series called “Battleground 2020: North Carolina,” which follows up on a 2019 Spectrum News 1 series looking at the state of play in North Carolina ahead of the election.


North Carolina’s Suburbs

Prof. Michael Bitzer, who teaches political science at Catawba College, says North Carolina’s suburbs can be divided into two groups:

  • Those located within urban counties, like Wake and Mecklenburg
  • Those located in the counties surround the big cities, including Union, Johnston, Pender, Davidson, etc.

Bitzer says the urban suburbs are the most competitive regions in the state.

“In 2016, Hillary Clinton won them 49 to 48. Basically, that's the battleground area,” he said.

Meanwhile, those surrounding suburban counties are very much in the Republican column. “Donald Trump wins two to one,” Bitzer said.


Suburban Political Strategy

The divide between the two types of suburbs can inform strategies for each party.

Take the Democrats, for example.

In Wake County, a local Democratic leader said that in order to win statewide elections in North Carolina, it helps if they can run up the scoreboard locally, overcoming deficits Democrats may see in other parts of the state.

“What we have to do in Wake County is to generate not just a win for our candidates, but to pull out every vote we can, every unaffiliated vote we can,” said Laurel Birch Kilgore, executive director of Wake County Democratic Party.

Meanwhile in the surrounding suburban counties, like conservative Union County, Democrats need to cut into the Republican lead.

“We always feel pressure in Union County. Are you kidding me? That’s like our middle name,” said Pam DeMaria, chair of the Union County Democrats.

At the national level, President Trump appears to be keenly aware that the suburbs are important. He has tried out different messages aimed at winning those voters over, including playing up ‘law and order’ in light of this summer’s unrest.

RELATED: Trump Makes Appeal to Suburban Voters, Key in North Carolina Presidential Contest

Wake County Republican Chair Donna Williams said GOP volunteers knocking on doors across her county are hearing from people who are worried.

“They’re concerned for their children’s education, for the children’s safety, for the community that their children are going to grow up in,” she said.

But whether that law and order message will find a wider receptive audience is unclear.

For starters, there are many other stories dominating the news that will likely be top of mind for voters, including the pandemic. Additionally, as Prof. Bitzer pointed out, the suburbs are changing.

“The movement of the entire South moving into the Republican Party was really built on those Republican suburban areas as they grew in strength,” he said.

“What we could be seeing is another transition away from Republican-ism into a competitive nature or a slight democratic advantage,” he continued.