Raleigh, N.C. — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump brings his mix of bombast and policy prescriptions to Dorton Arena Friday night, marking the latest visit by a presidential contender to North Carolina.
In national polls, Trump is the GOP front-runner, although an Elon University Poll suggests Dr. Ben Carson might have a lead among Tar Heel voters. Recent state-specific polls suggest that Trump leads among both Iowa and New Hampshire voters, which will hold the nation's first caucuses and primary, respectively.
Other presidential contenders, including Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush have raised money and campaigned in North Carolina. Trump himself appeared at this year's Republican state convention, but this appearance is ambitious.
The State Fairgrounds arena has seating capacity for 7,610, and Trump announced his appearance this week with little fanfare or push from his campaign. Tickets have been distributed for free through the Eventbrite website and were still available as of Thursday afternoon.
Trump is scheduled to speak at 7:30 p.m., and doors open to the public at 4:30 p.m.
"You're not talking about a conventional campaign here," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. "Trump intuitively understands what's working for him. He enjoys speaking to big crowds."
The businessman and reality television star poses problems for more traditional candidates in his own race and in other campaigns. The Washington Post recently reported on a memo by a National Republican Senatorial Committee staffer that noted Trump's controversial remarks, including "wacky things about women" and "extreme positioning" on immigration issues. His rhetoric has also sparked concern among some North Carolina Republicans.
"There probably won't be any Republican officials of any note on the stage with him," Taylor said. "That says a lot about what Trump means to the race and what Trump means to the Republican Party."
An unconventional campaign
Trump's campaign has been relatively frugal in terms of media buys, spending on radio buys in early primary states but not on television. In that respect, he is not unusual in North Carolina.
Voters in the Triad and the Triangle have not yet seen broadcast television advertising from presidential contenders, according to data provided by Kantar Media to WRAL News. Aside from a smattering of ads in Wilmington, Tar Heel voters are most likely to have seen advertising if they live near Charlotte or Asheville. Charlotte television stations reach into South Carolina, and Asheville residents see television broadcasts the originate from the Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., market.
South Carolina is the first Southern primary state and the first primary following New Hampshire. In addition to candidates such as Carson and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, super PACs like Right to Rise, which supports Bush, and the Conservative Solutions Project, which backs U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, have put commercials on the air there.
In North Carolina, presidential candidates and their super PAC backers are unlikely to opt for a sustained television presence until early in the new year. Joe Stewart, a political analyst and director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, said the March 1 Super Tuesday primary will put 14 states on the ballot two weeks before North Carolina's primary.
"Immediately after Super Tuesday, the significance of North Carolina will become abundantly clear," Stewart said.
In the mean time, Trump has been so successful at garnering free media through campaign appearances and cable chat shows that he's had little need to spend on television advertising.
"It's not at all a bad idea for Trump to begin to develop a little bit of profile here," Stewart said.
North Carolina's March 15 primary could help him close the deal for the Republican nomination following a strong showing in the Super Tuesday states or serve as a bulwark if his campaign is flagging.
Looking for an audience
If nothing else, Raleigh offers Trump a new pool of potential supporters who haven't heard the businessman offer remarks in person before. But there are signs that his message might particularly resonate here.
A recent High Point University Poll found more than half of respondents valued "new ideas and a different approach" above "experience and a proven record," and 49 percent of likely voters responding to the same survey said that a candidate's background as a business leader would make them more likely to back that person.
That appears to be what have attracted a pair of Fayetteville sisters, who bill themselves as "Diamond and Silk," and have become Internet celebrities based on their backing for Trump.
"Mr. Donald Trump’s non-traditional approach, untainted by Washington’s one-sided politics which give power to special interest groups and lobbyists, is the exact makeover that the White House needs in order to 'Make America Great Again,'" the pair write on their website. "As our next president, Mr. Donald Trump will 'tell it like it is' without all the political sound bites and political correctness that generally excludes the American people’s best interest."
Stewart said Trump may appeal to voters in a more conservative wing of the Republican Party, including the tea party, who find themselves disaffected by party leaders.
In addition to Trump diehards and Republicans looking for a standard bearer, Taylor suggested that some of those who turn out at Dorton Arena will be there to see Trump the celebrity entertainer and those merely curious about the commotion he's causing on the political scene.
"You'll get a mix of people who are revved up and then sort of voyeurs who are interested or puzzled by the Trump phenomenon," he said.
According to publicity for the event, doors are scheduled to open at 5 p.m., and the event should begin at 7:30 p.m.