Caught In the Middle: A Battleground County In Battleground NC Shows A Tight Race For President

Sep 29, 2020

Oxford, NC, the seat of Granville County, is an exurban area north of Durham that went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but flipped for Trump in 2016, picking him over Hillary Clinton by two percentage points.
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On a late afternoon in Granville County, Linda Smart took a stroll around beautiful Lake Rogers Park with her husband, Henry, and a friend.

"We're hikers and kayakers and stuff, so we're usually at parks," said Smart, 65.

The Smarts recently moved north from Durham to Granville to find a little more wide open space.

Granville has a population of more than 60,000 people spread over 536 square miles. By constrast, Durham County has a population more than five times that and is packed into just 298 square miles.

Smart, whose husband is retired from the Air Force, is a registered Republican and said she'll be voting for Donald Trump this year just as she did in 2016.

Linda Smart, 65, is a registered Republican who recently moved to Granville County from Durham. She said she voted for President Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again this year.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

"You know, I think he's great with the military, I think he's good with law and order," she said.

Nearby, Faye Jones, 80, sat at a picnic table and enjoyed the mild temperatures on an autumn afternoon. The registered Democrat mailed in her ballot this year and said she voted for Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris.

But Jones described her choice as more of a vote against Donald Trump because, in her words, he's just a little "too harsh sometimes."

"I don't know why he feels like he has to be that way but I think it's just him," she said.

Smart and Jones exemplify how Granville County is a swing county in a swing state. In 2008 and 2012, voters there went for Barack Obama by healthy margins. But the county flipped in 2016, going for Trump by two percentage points.

Over at Holt Reservoir near the town of Butner, John Lancaster, who had been fishing, expressed similar reservations about Trump.

"He's just a little bit too arrogant for me, he's a little over the top," said Lancaster, 54.

Lancaster's a registered Republican who's bouncing back from a rough period struggling with alcoholism, but said he's been clean for a year and living in a halfway house that has provided him with stability. Lancaster said he thinks Biden's a better candidate.

John Lancaster, 54, is a registered Republican but finds the president "arrogant" and "a little too over the top." Lancaster said he thinks Joe Biden's a better candidate who will care more about social security, elderly people and broad access to insurance.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

"I think Biden cares more about social security, about older people, insurance," he said.

Voter Split Makes It Hard To Predict County Swing This Year

Farms and horse pastures dot the landscape on the 10-minute drive from Butner to the city of Creedmoor, population 4,100.

That's the home of the Major League Barbershop, where Waltye Blackwell cut a towheaded teen's hair.

Blackwell is a Black, single mother of three, ages 6 to 16. She struggles to make ends meet while guiding her kids through virtual learning.

"I would like to see them back in schools but I want to make sure it's done safely," said Blackwell, 41, after stepping outside the shop to talk politics.

Blackwell's a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but said she hasn't made up her mind yet this year. Blackwell said she feels Trump's divisive rhetoric has made the country a more hostile place. And she fears for her children.

Waltye Blackwell, 41, is a single, working mother of three, ages 6 to 16. She's a registered Democrat but said she hasn't made up her mind yet about the presidential race.
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"I just want them to grow up in a better world where they don't have to be afraid where they go or how they look," she said, referring to recent civil strife around persistent, systemic racial inequity.

Over at the Owl House Cafe on Main Street, Mark Grindstaff enjoyed a sweet tea at a sidewalk table. The 54-year-old registered Republican is a staunch Trump supporter. Grindstaff said he believes Trump will help the country regain lost values associated with a gauzy image of the 1950s he's only heard about from his parents.

"There was honor, integrity, respect," he said before going on to accuse Trump's opponents of looking backwards.

Unaffiliated Voters Still Vote For A Preferred Party

Granville county has more than 38,000 registered voters--17,000-plus are registered Democrats, 9,900 Republican, and a little more than 11,000 unaffiliated. But many of those unaffiliated voters lean reliably one way or the other.

Like David Quinn, 64, a computer systems analyst who moved with his wife to Granville County from Raleigh a year and a half ago.

"You don't have the traffic, you can buy way more house for way less money," he said, likening Raleigh's sprawling growth to the Atlanta metro area.

David Quinn, 64, leans against a car outside the post office in Oxford, the seat of Granville County. Quinn's a registered unaffiliated voter but leans Republican and supports the president.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC

Quinn's a registered unaffiliated voter but leans Republican. He said he voted for Trump in 2016 and will do so again this year, citing Trump's stance on immigration, law and order, and foreign policy.

"Trump has been the first one to really pay attention to China, which is really the country we need to be paying attention to," Quinn said.

Meredith College Political Science Professor David McLennan described Granville as a quintessential ex-urban battleground, caught smack dab in the middle of the red, conservative countryside and the blue urban areas of the Triangle.

"In reality, the voting patterns indicate that it's almost a 50-50 county," McLennan said.

That makes this year's results in Granville, like the state itself, tough to predict with Election Day just five weeks away.