CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - As Democrat Jennifer Roberts stretched out her hand to one more early voter Friday, she knew she was nearing the finish line of an 18-month campaign marathon.
"I'm sprinting," she told a reporter. "I'm running through the tape."
On paper, Roberts should have a clear lane to victory Tuesday in Charlotte's mayoral election.
Democrats not only outnumber Republicans more than 2-1 but won the last three mayoral elections. Roberts herself is a proven vote-getter. As a Mecklenburg County commissioner, she led the ticket three times. And an Observer poll this month showed her with a 15-point lead over Republican Edwin Peacock.
But elections are rarely won on paper, and Peacock clearly believes he has "a path to victory."
Like Roberts, he's been knocking on doors and working the phones. Like her, he's up on TV, sending mail and engaging on social media. He's even advertising on Pandora.
Despite Democrats' registration edge, Peacock, a former city council member, came within 6 points of Cannon in 2013. To win now, he needs a lot of things to fall his way.
Here's a look at some factors that could make the election closer than polls suggest:
The early vote
In 2013, Peacock ran close to Democrat Patrick Cannon on Election Day, losing by a scant 182 votes. But Cannon built up a nearly 5,500 vote margin in early voting.
Through Thursday, Democrats were early voting at about their registration levels while Republicans were turning out at a higher rate than their registration would suggest. Democrats typically do better than Republicans in early voting.
According to an Observer analysis, early voting turnout in Charlotte's 10 leading Republican precincts topped 4 percent compared with 2.8 percent for the top Democratic precincts.
The precinct with the highest turnout – 6.4 percent – was Precinct 74 near Sharon and Fairview roads. The area is 90 percent white and 44 percent Republican.
Early voting turnout in heavily white precincts was running at 3.2 percent compared with 2 percent in predominantly black precincts.
Black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic and their support could be a key for Roberts. The Observer poll showed she was winning 79 percent of the black vote.
And in the primary, the Observer found that Roberts won eight of the 20 precincts with the largest percentages of black voters.
But at least in early voting, black turnout appears to be relatively low. For the first time since 2009, there is no African-American mayoral candidate and just two black candidates for at-large city council seats.
"I just know right now apathy is high and people are just disconnected," says Colette Forrest, an African-American political activist. "We don't have that electric, exciting candidate to draw us out."
After their heated 2013 primary, Democrats Patrick Cannon and James Mitchell held a "unity rally" at the board of elections. Prominent Democrats, including former White House aide Erskine Bowles, trumpeted party unity.
This year has seen no such rally. After their contentious Oct. 6 runoff, Roberts has yet to talk to Mayor Dan Clodfelter.
Businessman Cameron Harris, a former county Democratic chairman, strongly supported Clodfelter.
"I'm very disappointed in the Democratic Party for being splintered," he says. "I worked so damn hard to bring it together." Though he declined to say who he's voting for, he says, "I don't think that Jennifer is a business-oriented candidate."
Democratic County Commissioner Pat Cotham says some Democrats "aren't ready to support the person that they worked hard against."
"That's just human nature," says Cotham, who didn't endorse anyone in the primary.
After a competitive primary and runoff, Roberts entered the final two weeks of the campaign with less campaign money than Peacock.
Though Roberts has out-raised Peacock overall, reports filed last week showed Peacock enjoyed a nearly 3-1 cash advantage. He had $164,000 on hand compared with Roberts' nearly $58,000.
Roberts campaign manager Jacob Becklund says that will be offset by the residual benefits of advertising from the primary.
"There's a carry-over into the general election," he says.
Schools vs. the streetcar
Each candidate has hammered on issues. For Roberts, it's making the city a bigger partner with public schools. She says more city-aided after-school programs not only can help students but improve public safety.
Peacock, meanwhile, has pushed her support for the streetcar. He says no money to expand it will be available for years and suggests that Roberts would raise property taxes to pay for it, which she has denied.