North Carolina is the ultimate battleground turf this election season. Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2008 by fewer than 15,000 votes, but he lost it in 2012.
Hillary Clinton would love to turn this Southern state blue again, and her success depends largely on black voters. In fact, she has no path to victory without African-Americans.
So far, she has a major advantage. Polls show Clinton consistently capturing upwards of 90 percent of support from African-Americans nationally. (Donald Trump is polling in the low single digits; as NPR's Sam Sanders has reported, his recent outreach to black voters is falling flat).
So it's not a question of how African-Americans vote. It is, though, a question of how many.
"We expect the African-American vote to be about 23 percent of the electorate in North Carolina," said Marlon Marshall, director of state campaigns and political engagement for the Clinton campaign. "It's absolutely critical."
And, so, do the math — if about a quarter of the electorate is black, that means the campaign is banking on half of its votes coming from African-Americans. In other words — the campaign is estimating that about 1 out of every 2 voters in North Carolina who cast a ballot for Clinton will be black.
The Clinton campaign insists that it is reaching out to churches, historically black colleges and universities, and black newspapers to be as "hyperlocal" as possible.
Black voters "are a crucial part of getting to win the state of North Carolina," said Marshall. "And it's something we're going to focus on every single day."
The Clinton campaign says it has hundreds of staffers in North Carolina, some working specifically on African-American outreach. But many people we interviewed say the Clinton outreach does not feel as "palpable" and as "visible" as the more organic energy of the Obama '08 and '12 campaigns in the state.
And they wondered — without highly "visible" grass-roots efforts, can Clinton persuade enough black voters to show up for her on Election Day?
It's impossible to gauge turnout accurately until an election postmortem; so instead we focused on voter enthusiasm as a barometer — we asked black voters in North Carolina whom they were supporting and why.
Voters we spoke to, especially people who were ardent Obama supporters and volunteers, gave three consistent reasons.
Most everyone said they would be voting for Hillary Clinton. But a vote for her often actually seemed to be about something, or someone, else.
Reason 1: Stop Trump
Organizers for the Democratic Party's coordinated campaign were scattered all across North Carolina Central University in Durham on a Friday afternoon to register students at this historically black school; it's thought to be friendly Clinton turf.
For Kalishia Thompson, 19, this November will be her first presidential election, but she says she is not that excited about her choices.
"I feel like Trump — like he's racist," she said.
Thompson doesn't feel incredibly inspired by Clinton either, but she says she is going to support her.
"I'm definitely gonna vote for Hillary," she said, holding a drink in one hand and a cellphone in the other, adding, "because I don't want Trump as president."
"Trump" is a threshold issue for many voters. And his name was one of the most common explanations voters gave for supporting Clinton.
Holly Ewell-Lewis was a passionate Obama supporter who essentially put her life on hold to volunteer for the Obama campaign full time in 2008.
"Where I hoped we would be after eight years of Obama is not here," said Ewell-Lewis, 51, at a coffee shop in Chapel Hill. "I didn't think we would be looking at a Trump presidency."
She says she'll vote for Clinton in November.
"And, the reason why — well, she's not Trump," Ewell-Lewis said with a laugh. "She's not Donald Trump."
Ewell-Lewis respects Clinton and thinks she is smart and capable, but she says she's not as enthusiastic about her as she was for Obama. And she is concerned other black voters might feel the same.
"It wasn't just the policies that got them to come out; it was whether they trusted the candidate to understand their issues, to be committed and dedicated to their community, and I just don't know if that trust has really been established [with Clinton]," she said.
Ewell-Lewis points to some of Clinton's mistakes with black voters in the South Carolina primary in 2008. She says some young voters — like her daughter — still have questions about Clinton's integrity.
"I think she's had missteps there with the Black Lives Matter movement," said Ewell-Lewis. "And she's had missteps there that have been noted by young people."
Still, Ewell-Lewis says she'll be volunteering for Clinton because she is so terrified of the alternative.
Her husband, Ken Lewis, says he'll be voting for Clinton too; but he questions whether "not Trump" is enough of a motivator — especially for black voters suffering from high unemployment or harsh policing.
"I think 'not Trump' is not a sufficient rationale for getting people to vote who may be losing faith in the political process, frankly," said Lewis, a lawyer who went to Harvard Law School with Michelle Obama.
Holly and Ken were dedicated Obama volunteers. They even drove their kids to South Carolina to knock on doors as a family during the 2008 primaries. This November, Lewis isn't feeling the same kind of drive.
"I think Hillary Clinton has really struggled to articulate how her election would represent a kind of progress that would be meaningful in African-American communities," he said.
Reason 2: Obama's legacy
During the Obama days, thousands of ad hoc volunteers ran a sort of guerrilla warfare campaign — proselytizing on street corners, in barbershops, and at football games to bring people to the polls.
Lori Tyson was one of those supervolunteers. She said she doesn't see that kind of grass-roots operation this year or feel the same kind of excitement.
"I'm not in love with her like I was — I used to say Obama's like my Michael Jackson when I was growing up — I was in love with him like crazy, like that with posters on my wall, sitting there staring at him," she said.
Tyson turned one of the bedrooms in her house into an Obama shrine after the 2008 election, complete with buttons, newspapers and a photo of her hugging the president.
She doesn't have the same passion for Clinton, but she said she is going to vote for her nonetheless and encourage friends to do the same, partly to preserve Obama's legacy.
"I don't want to see all the things that the Obama administration has achieved be dismantled," she said. "I definitely don't want to see Donald Trump in the White House, ever. For any reason. Not even to have lunch. That is disgraceful."
For some black voters, like Tyson, the Trump factor isn't just political — it's personal. Trump led the "birther movement" and was one of the most vocal voices questioning the citizenship of the country's first black president.
Thompson, the student at North Carolina Central University, says she wishes Obama could run again — she says she was more excited about his election as a 15-year-old, even though she couldn't vote.
"It made me feel like for once we were being heard, for once — one of our own wasn't being put in jail or wasn't being put down into society," she said. "[Obama] was actually ... running for all of us. He was running for us as black people."
There will never be an election like 2008 ever again in her lifetime, said Diane Robertson, a former Obama volunteer who is also now volunteering with the Clinton campaign.
"Having elected Barack Obama is the single most significant thing other than my three children that I have done," she said, over fried okra and tomatoes at one of the oldest black-owned restaurants in Chapel Hill. "And that's not hyperbole."
But Robertson insists she is also excited about Clinton as a candidate in her own right and the future of the Supreme Court. She says she keeps a voter registration clipboard in her car, and she thinks black voters will show up in huge numbers on Election Day.
"And I don't think it's just because they have a bad candidate on the other side," she said.
Reason 3: Voting laws and local politics
For Robertson, one of the main motivating factors for African-Americans this November is less about the presidency and more about the franchise.
"I can't emphasize enough that voter suppression is the top thing that has happened in this state," she said. "Everything falls from there."
Republicans have pushed through many conservative changes in North Carolina in recent years, including a new voter ID law and restrictions on early voting, which many critics say would hurt African-Americans at the polls.
"You know, nothing motivates you like somebody trying to keep you from doing something," said Robertson. "Because if you know that you are being locked out of a system that you fought and your ancestors bled for — and within their lifetime — it is being undone, I don't know what more motivation ... " she said, her voice trailing off.
Last Sunday, the North Carolina NAACP organized voting rights-themed-services all across the state. The group has been trying to register black voters across the state to fight back local laws.
"We wanna make sure that [the voter registration drives] are done in neighborhoods of color because they are the least represented and we want people to know that their votes count," said the Rev. Donald Matthews, who leads voter registration efforts for the NAACP in parts of Durham. "When you talk about voting ...you explain to them what has happened with the vote."
And this is not a new effort; in 2013, North Carolina NAACP President William Barber helped organize protests against the Republican state Legislature's economic, political and social agenda with Moral Mondays.
"I think that has created a buzz and some enthusiasm at the local level that will resonate at the national level," said Kerry Haynie, a political science professor at Duke University and a native North Carolinian. "There are some organizing efforts to turn out the vote to vote for legislators in North Carolina who are friendly to voting rights. And I think that'll help the Clinton campaign come November."
Haynie points out that Clinton may benefit from trickle-up politics because of the local climate in North Carolina. He says the "overt racism" around the voter ID issue has awakened people; it's reminding them of "a Jim Crow era."
"I started first grade in 1969 and in my hometown that was the first year the schools were fully integrated," he explained. "This state has come a long way ... and, to sense that we're sliding back to an era that we fought long and hard to move away from, it has motivated me in ways that I hadn't been motivated before in the past."
Will Huntsberry contributed to this report.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
North Carolina is a state Barack Obama won in 2008 and then narrowly lost in 2012. Hillary Clinton would love to turn this Southern state blue again. To do that depends a lot on black voters. NPR's Asma Khalid is just back from a trip to North Carolina. Hey, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So you went down there specifically to talk to black voters. Why?
KHALID: Well, Ari, there's absolutely no way for Hillary Clinton to actually win North Carolina without African-Americans. I spoke to Marlon Marshall with the Clinton campaign, and he put it this way.
MARLON MARSHALL: It's critical. You know, we expect the African-American vote to be about 23 percent of the electorate in North Carolina.
KHALID: So, Ari, they're looking for huge numbers. The Clinton campaign is banking on about half their votes being black voters.
SHAPIRO: In North Carolina - but if Clinton polls above 90 percent among black voters, what's the concern?
KHALID: That's true. She's polling really well. It's not a question, though, of how African-Americans will vote. It's a question of how many. And, Ari, that's what I was trying to figure out in North Carolina. You know, it's not really an easy thing to do to guess turnout, but you can gauge enthusiasm. You know, some of the usual indicators like organizers and yard signs - I didn't see much of that.
SHAPIRO: You did talk to a lot of black voters down there. Let's listen to your report.
KHALID: OK. There were three major reasons black voters consistently gave me for supporting Hillary Clinton, and none of those reasons were actually about Hillary Clinton. I hung around North Carolina Central University in Durham the other day. It's a historically black school where a lot of students support Hillary Clinton. And when I asked them why, pretty much everyone said it's because she's not Trump.
KALEISHA THOMPSON: I don't like Trump. Like, he's racist. Like, I will vote for Hillary because I don't want Trump.
ANDRE GREEN: I just don't think that Donald Trump is fit to be our president at this point.
AMERIA WARREN: Trump's not on the best of people's sides.
JAMIECE BRAXTON: I don't think Donald Trump has the experience.
BRIA COLEMAN: It's just Hillary and Donald, and I don't really like Donald Trump's views.
KHALID: That's Kaleisha Thompson, Andre Green, Ameria Warren, Jameice Braxton and Bria Coleman. As you can hear, not Trump was one of the most common reasons I heard around North Carolina. After all, Trump was one of the most vocal voices questioning Barack Obama's citizenship.
Ken Lewis is a lawyer and former Obama volunteer. He worries stop Trump is not enough, especially for black voters suffering from high unemployment or harsh policing.
KEN LEWIS: I think not Trump is not a sufficient rationale for getting people to vote who may be losing faith in the political process, frankly.
KHALID: Lewis and his whole family were dedicated Obama volunteers. They even drove down to South Carolina to knock on doors. This November Lewis will vote for Hillary Clinton, but he isn't feeling the same kind of drive.
LEWIS: I think Secretary Clinton has really struggled to articulate how her election would represent a kind of progress that would be meaningful in African-American communities.
KHALID: Multiple people told me that during the Obama days, thousands of people were proselytizing in barbershops, on street corners, at football games to bring people to the polls. Lori Tyson was one of those super volunteers. She told me, you don't see that kind of grassroots operation this year or feel that kind of excitement.
LORI TYSON: I'm not in love with her like I was - I used to say Obama's like my Michael Jackson when I was growing up (laughter) with him - like, crazy like that, so (laughter) - with posters on my walls, sitting there, staring at them.
KHALID: Tyson actually turned one of the bedrooms in her house into an Obama shrine, complete with buttons, newspapers and a photo of her hugging the president. She told me she's going to vote for Clinton this year partly because of Obama's legacy. That's reason number two.
TYSON: I don't want to see all the things that the Obama administration has achieved be dismantled.
KHALID: And it's not just national politics. It's local. And that's the third reason people say could bring them to the polls for Clinton. Republicans have pushed a lot of changes in this state, including a new voter ID law and restrictions on early voting, which many critics say would hurt African-Americans at the polls. These changes seem to be energizing the black community more than Hillary Clinton.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAUL ANDERSON: Martin Luther King Jr. on this day of history reminds us all that we need to look at this dream speech.
KHALID: This past Sunday, Paul Anderson talked about voting rights at church. The North Carolina NAACP organized services like this all across the state.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANDERSON: My brothers and sisters, we have a lot on the table for us to think about, a lot on the table for us to vote about.
KHALID: For the past few years, activists have been organizing the local black community to stand up to the Republican state legislature. People like Kerry Haynie fear local lawmakers are taking the state back to the days of Jim Crow. Haynie's a political science professor at Duke and a native North Carolinian.
KERRY HAYNIE: This state has come a long way, and to sense that we are sliding back or moving back to an era that we fought long and hard to move away from has motivated me in ways that, you know, I hadn't been motivated in the past.
SHAPIRO: That's Kerry Haynie talking with our colleague Asma Khalid. And Asma, we heard a lot of people give us sort of indirect reasons for supporting Hillary Clinton. It seems like she needs to energize her base. How does her grassroots operation look right now?
KHALID: Well, Kerry kind of described it best. He told me, you know, there are some grassroots efforts, but he doesn't really know how deep those roots go. And pretty much everyone we talked to says it's going to be tough to have high black voter turnout without visible grassroots. And we just didn't see many signs of that.
SHAPIRO: I know you were focused on the Democrats, but Donald Trump has been making overtures to black voters. Did you hear any kind of response to that from the black voters in North Carolina you talked with?
KHALID: Really not at all, Ari. I mean it really seems irrelevant. It just was never a topic of conversation with anyone that we spoke with. And you know, as we've reported on our air, it seems that some of those overtures may be less directed at African-American voters and more directed at white, suburban women.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Asma Khalid, thanks.
KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.