KENANSVILLE — Donald Trump is spending a lot of time in this critical presidential swing state, but he campaigned Tuesday evening far from cities like Charlotte and Raleigh where many candidates have courted moderate voters in recent years.
Instead, he zeroed in on this tiny, rural town of about 850 people to make his pitch to the disaffected, working-class white voters who have propelled his campaign. The strategy appears to be less about swaying undecideds and more about making sure supporters don’t stay home on Election Day.
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2-1 in Duplin County, but voters here have chosen the GOP presidential candidate in the past two elections by a wide margin. Among those lifelong Democrats is James Teachey, a 78-year-old retired farmer who said this year was the first time he donated to a presidential campaign: $40 to Trump.
“People are sick and tired of the way things are going in Washington and the way people are running it,” he said. “I was born coming out of the Depression. We know what a dollar means, what leaving your door unlocked means. And all those things are gone.”
Trump’s business background is a big draw for his supporters here in Kenansville, where beyond the small downtown area’s handful of restaurants, gas stations and a couple of grocery stores lie farms that are the area’s major economic driver. Pork and poultry growers and processing plants employ thousands in Duplin County and have drawn Latino residents who now account for more than 20 percent of its population of 60,000.
Still, Trump drew cheers with vows to get tough on immigration during his speech at the Duplin County Events Center on the outskirts of Kenansville. He also garnered applause by promising to bring manufacturing jobs back to the state.
“They’re making a fortune in Washington pushing trade deals that take jobs away from North Carolina and all these states. Those days are over. The jobs are coming back,” he said.
Earlier in the day, he addressed a crowd in High Point, a hub of the declining furniture industry that was hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs but still hosts a world-renowned furniture trade show.
Not many high-profile candidates have come through Duplin County over the years. Asked if he could remember any other presidential campaign visits, Teachey laughed and said he thought Eleanor Roosevelt came decades ago.
While Kenansville may seem like an unusual stop, Trump’s decision to veer away from population centers shows North Carolina is a state he has to win, said Thomas Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University.
“Campaigns do generally go to bigger cities, and going to a rural area, there’s a certain psychology in going to a small town like Kenansville. I think that symbolically could be good,” Eamon said.
While North Carolina is dotted with left-leaning urban areas such as Raleigh and Charlotte, it also has one of the country’s largest rural populations. A 2012 analysis by the Census found North Carolina ranked second only to Texas with 3.2 million rural residents.
Arthur Best, a black voter from Kenansville and U.S. Army veteran, is frustrated like many others by the lack of well-paying jobs, particularly for minorities. But for him, Trump is not the answer.
“I lost my father in Vietnam. He didn’t die for the foolishness we’re looking at today,” said Best, a Democrat who’s offended by Trump’s insults toward U.S. Sen. John McCain and the parents of a Muslim soldier killed while serving in Iraq.
Still, more than a quarter of Duplin County’s residents live in poverty, and only a fraction have college degrees, according to 2014 Census estimate. For voters like Bill Link, a retired U.S. Marine officer from nearby Beulaville, Trump’s promises to improve the economy are what really matter.
“The majority of people right now are leaning for Trump,” said Link, who drives trucks and owns a carnival equipment rental business. “Because we’re all working people. We all work for a living. We’re blue-collar, and we believe that the country has gone the wrong way.”