For the first time in 52 years, Utah is now considered a battleground state in the upcoming Presidential election. According to a recent poll, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are tied in the Beehive State, which is stunning considering that Mitt Romney carried Utah by a staggering 48 points only four years ago. Today, Romney has been one of Trump’s most outspoken critics, which may explain at least in part why the presumptive Republican nominee is struggling in a state that hasn’t supported a Democratic candidate since the year after President Kennedy’s assassination. But he is not the only reason Utahns seem to be rejecting Trump.
“Recent general election polls out of heavily Mormon, deep-red Utah have newly underscored Trump’s broader challenge with the community—a community that is troubled by, among other things, his hostile language toward Hispanic immigrants (many Mormons do missions to South America) and his waffling on social issues,” Politico reported in a story titled “Trump Hits a Mormon Wall. “The LDS church, which itself suffered much discrimination in the past, released a statement in December saying, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns. However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.’ The statement came as Trump pushed a proposal for a temporary ban on Muslim migration.”
Utah, however, isn’t an anomaly.
In Kansas, another reliably conservative state that hasn’t supported a Democratic Presidential candidate since 1964, a recent poll conducted by Zogby shows Hillary Clinton 7 points in front of Donald Trump. Four years ago, Mitt Romney carried Kansas by more than 20 points. Zogby asserts that the poll demonstrates Kansas is now also a battleground state.
“Trump’s problem in Kansas is that he doesn’t appeal to many serious conservatives (who don’t believe he is one of them) or to moderate Republicans,” observed The Wichita Eagle. “Many voters (though not enough) also are appalled by his racist comments, such as his recent claim that a Hispanic judge is biased against him and his proposal, repeated this week after the Orlando nightclub shooting, to prevent all Muslim immigrants from entering the United States. Then there are the bluster, bullying and conspiracy theories.”
Arizona is now also on the map, for the first time since 1996. Many believe Georgia could be in play as well; 7.4% of the state’s population are “New Americans” (either naturalized immigrants or the children of immigrants) eligible and registered to vote, the overwhelming majority of whom are hispanic. There are thousands more who are eligible but not yet registered to vote.
And perhaps most surprisingly, there is reason to believe, although it’s a long shot, that Hillary Clinton could win in the Lone Star State. “If black and Latino voters come out and vote, we could win Texas,” Clinton recently boasted.
“If ever you’re going to swing for the fences, or think that there might be a real outlier outcome, this would probably be that election,” Dr. James Henson, a professor of government at UT Austin, told the online publication Quartz. “Secretary Clinton is right. If Latinos and African Americans do turn out in sufficient numbers, she might be able to pull off an upset in Texas.”
The Clinton campaign already hired campaign directors in all fifty states. They intend on competing nationwide, though most of their resources will be spent in the same battlegrounds targeted by the 2012 Obama campaign. Still, her decision to invest resources in all fifty states is a departure from Obama’s playbook and a return to the strategy envisioned by former DNC Chairman Howard Dean in 2008.
Democrats in Louisiana may be wondering whether it’s possible for Hillary Clinton to pull of the improbable and repeat the stunning, double-digit victory of Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards only a year ago.
The short answer is: Of course it is, but it won’t be easy.
In 2012, Mitt Romney won Louisiana by more than 17 points. Barack Obama carried only 10 of the state’s 64 parishes.
Presidential elections are different than gubernatorial elections. It’s not the same electorate. Voter turnout doubles, buoyed by increased participation in rural parishes (which are disproportionately more conservative). Barack Obama won Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, the state’s three largest cities, but he was still crushed.
And although John Bel Edwards’ recent election was impressive, it was also an outlier; Democratic candidates had previously been defeated in fourteen consecutive statewide elections.
So are there any reasons for Louisiana Democrats to be cautiously optimistic this year?
Polling in Louisiana has been sparse, but at least two recent polls have Donald Trump with a commanding lead. In early June, Southern Media and Opinion Research, on behalf of a Republican Party donor and businessman, showed Trump ahead of Clinton, 53% to 39%, with a margin of error of 4.4%.
An internal poll, recently conducted on behalf of a down-ticket campaign, has Trump and Clinton two points higher, 55% to 41%, according to a source who has reviewed the poll’s findings and crosstabs. That poll, which also has a margin of error of 4.4%, has not yet been published.
That seems to throw a bucket of cold water on the idea that Hillary Clinton could ever compete in Louisiana.
However, there is a third recent internal poll, commissioned by a political action committee and conducted by a reputable national pollster, that shows the race significantly closer, with Trump at 44% and Clinton at 41%, according to a campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That poll has a margin of error of 3.9%, which means Clinton and Trump may be practically tied.
The third poll seems to be the most intuitive and accurate. The other two suggest that only 4%-8% of Louisiana voters are either undecided or in favor of a third-party candidate, which means that 92%-96% of voters have already made up their minds a month before the conventions and nearly five months before election day. As volatile as this election has already been, it’s difficult to believe that the electorate has already calcified.
That said, all three polls show Hillary Clinton with essentially the same level of support, which may indicate her ceiling. Notably, in 2012, Obama won 40.5% of Louisiana voters, consistent with Clinton’s numbers today.
But 2016 is not 2012. As evidenced in polling in other ruby red states, this year has all of the hallmarks of an outlier.
A recent Bloomberg poll puts Trump behind by 11 points nationwide. Astonishingly, 55% of voters said they could never support Donald Trump. His numbers among women are even worse, and for the first time in 20 years, the Democratic candidate is ahead among white women.
If the same exact electorate from 2012 shows up in 2016, Clinton would need to flip slightly more than 170,000 Romney voters in order to win Louisiana.
There are a few reasons to believe this is possible.
First, despite Clinton’s own high unfavorables, Donald Trump is the least popular person to run for President in modern American history. 70% of voters view him unfavorably, compared with 55% of voters who view Clinton unfavorably. If this continues to be the trend, Trump will most assuredly lose ground, even in Louisiana.
Second, although many refuse to acknowledge it, racial resentment and antipathy depressed white turnout for Barack Obama, in both 2008 and 2012. Numerous studies have concluded that Obama’s margins of victory would have been at least 4 points higher had he been a white Democrat. (Republicans in Louisiana have sometimes taken offense to the notion that racial resentment influenced the opposition to Barack Obama, but the truth is, racism cost him votes among people who would have otherwise supported a Democrat).
“Political scientists Jason Windett, Kevin Banda and Thomas Carsey find that racially prejudiced Whites viewed Obama more negatively and were less likely to vote for him,” writes Salon’s Sean McElwee. “They estimate that racism cost Obama between 2.2 million and 5.7 million votes.” Research conducted by Michael Tesler reveals that “the most racially resentful grew about 12 points more Republican than their least racially resentful counterparts from before to after Obama’s presidential nomination.”
This is an ugly and uncomfortable truth about America, and it’s particularly relevant in a state in which 55% of white voters supported the gubernatorial campaign of the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, in the last decade of the 20th century. A study of Duke’s 1990 campaign for Senate revealed that whites in Louisiana were more likely to vote for Duke in parishes with large minority populations. In a state in which 31% of the population is African-American, the correlations are hard to ignore.
Of course, it is difficult to precisely quantify how many votes Barack Obama lost in Louisiana due to racial resentment; it may have been as few as 3 points and as much as 12 points. Regardless, though, the data shows he still would have lost, just as Al Gore did in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
The last Democratic Presidential candidate who won Louisiana was a white person named Clinton. Only a year after David Duke’s failed run for governor, Bill Clinton turned Louisiana blue, though his victory was largely attributable to Ross Perot’s quixotic third party bid. That year, Clinton only won a plurality. However, four years later, in 1996, he won the state outright, capturing 52% of the vote.
The Clintons’ ties to Louisiana, dating back well before Bill’s tenures as governor of neighboring Arkansas, are the third reason that Democrats in the state may have a reason to believe in Hillary’s chances. She and her husband have fostered lifelong relationships with people all across the state. According to yet another internal poll conducted last year, Bill Clinton is the most admired living politician in Louisiana. Even though Louisiana is conventionally considered a solidly red state, there is still a reservoir of goodwill for the Big Dog. Whether that affection and goodwill extends to his wife, however, remains to be seen.
There is a fourth reason Democrats may be hopeful: There were actually more Democrats who showed up to vote in the Louisiana presidential primary than Republicans. To be sure, the difference was fewer than 3,000 voters and there are more registered Democrats in Louisiana than registered Republicans, but it’s nonetheless encouraging and significant. Hillary Clinton received nearly twice as many primary votes as Donald Trump, and Trump only garnered fewer than 50,000 more votes than Bernie Sanders. Trump won the Louisiana Republican primary by a plurality, 41.4%, just four points ahead of Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton, however, won the Democratic primary by a resounding 71.1% of the vote. Clinton’s support among her base in Louisiana is solid; Trump’s, however, is tepid and increasingly reluctant.
The last true standard-bearer of the Louisiana Republican Party, former Gov. Bobby Jindal, called Trump a “narcissist, an egomaniac” only a few months ago. When it became clear that Trump would be the party’s nominee, Jindal issued a half-hearted endorsement, noting that he “continue(s) to be critical (of Trump).” That hardly inspires confidence. Jindal has subsequently declined to attend the Republican National Convention next month in Cleveland, as have four of the last five previous Republican nominees.
Incidentally, when Jindal was running for the Republican presidential nomination, numerous polls showed him losing Louisiana in a heads-up race against Clinton. If Jindal truly couldn’t beat Clinton in his own home state, Trump should be in greater danger of defeat.
And finally, the fifth reason for Louisiana Democrats to remain hopeful is that if the people of Utah, Kansas, Georgia, Arizona, and perhaps even Texas are rejecting Donald Trump, then there’s no reason that a state with the nation’s second highest per-capita population of African-Americans and a recently elected, popular Democratic governor cannot and will not do the same.
Louisiana has always been a battleground for local and state politics. This year, there may be a chance that we’ll once again be recognized nationally.