The final part of a weekly series
Most politically aware Americans can tick off at least some of the quadrennial battleground states that determine the winner in close presidential elections.
It’s a list that starts with Ohio, which no Republican has ever lost while winning the White House, and continues with Florida, site of the notorious 2000 recount. It even includes tiny New Hampshire, site of the first primary election. Although the state has only four electoral votes, Al Gore would have won the presidency if he’d carried them in 2000—except that Ralph Nader siphoned off 23,000 Granite Staters in a race George W. Bush won by 7,200 votes.
But the Electoral College map changes every four years, sometimes greatly, sometimes slightly. In 2016, RealClearPolitics began our swing state series in Ohio and moved on to Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania—the states likely to decide this election. We also looked at how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have competed for Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Other battlegrounds this year are demographic, not geographic. Millennials, for instance, became a contested cohort when polls showed they weren’t flocking to Clinton in the numbers they did for President Obama.
As this year’s campaign entered its final week, more unexpected trends emerged. Are African-Americans shying away from the polls this year? That’s the Democrats’ fear based on early voting trends. Is Hillary Clinton competitive in Arizona? That’s what the polls show, even though it seems unlikely. The state has gone Democratic only once in the last 10 elections -- and that one time was when Hillary Clinton’s husband won re-election in 1996. And can Utah really be in play? In 2012, Mitt Romney carried it, 73 percent to 26 percent, over Obama. Okay, Romney is a Mormon who has roots in the state, but George W. Bush ran up similar numbers there in 2004. So what in the world is going on this year?
The RCP staff examined these non-traditional battlegrounds, looking at how they became a part of the race for the White House. Below are their reports.
An Upstart Throws Utah Race for a Loop
In Utah, the ghosts of the Republican primary have come back to haunt Donald Trump in the general election.
During the rollicking spring months, when Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz duked it out for every last delegate, Utah voters roundly rejected the brash New York businessman and slowed his path to the nomination. The gesture reflected deeply held doubts about Trump’s qualifications and his personal values, misgivings that did not recede with time. At the convention in Cleveland last summer, the Utah delegation announced its votes from the floor for Cruz, a small act of defiance, and then raised noisy objections when the votes were tallied for Trump.
Some Republicans thought that would mark the end of the rivalry between the GOP standard-bearer and Utah; after all, the Beehive State has backed a Republican in every presidential election since 1964.
But polls suggest Utahns could be poised to shatter precedent and deliver one final blow to Trump — by instead backing Evan McMullin (pictured), a Utah native who left his job working for House Republicans to run for president. Despite launching his candidacy in August with few resources and no national profile, McMullin is now neck-and-neck with Trump, according to some polls. (The RealClearPolitics average shows Trump ahead of the upstart candidate by six percentage points and leading Hillary Clinton by 6.3.)
“Party has been the dominant force here,” said Boyd Matheson, former chief of staff to Utah Sen. Mike Lee, “but people aren’t willing to just blindly follow the party because it’s the party.”
Trump’s camp and its supporters in the state have nevertheless sought to appeal to a sense of party loyalty in the waning days of the campaign. During a swing through Salt Lake City last week, Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, urged Republicans to “come home” to the GOP ticket.
"There are only two names on that ballot that have a chance to be president of the United States of America," the Indiana governor said.
But Trump’s case has not been helped by Utah Republican lawmakers — including Gov. Gary Herbert, Rep. Mia Love and Lee, all of whom have refused to back the nominee. Rep. Jason Chaffetz also withdrew his support for Trump before announcing he would grudgingly vote for him.
Meanwhile McMullin has countered, with apparent success, that conservatives in Utah should not owe their support to someone who doesn’t represent their values and takes their allegiance for granted.
“It reminds me of an abusive household, like, ‘We’re going to abuse you, and we’re going to threaten you, and we’re going to coerce you, but at the end of the day, you’re going to still come home.’ And I think that is deeply offensive to the American people,” McMullin told RealClearPolitics by phone Wednesday. “The American people, power rests with them, not with the government, not with any party. And the idea of asking people to come home to you while you don’t serve them well is disrespectful to the American people and a symptom of the leadership crisis we have in this country.”
It has been a steep climb for McMullin to emerge as a contender. Apart from his organizational challenges, he launched his campaign with a message that initially lacked traction.
“When [McMullin] was making a protest argument he didn’t have any traction at all. His momentum shifted when he started talking about principles.”
“McMullin came in as protest candidate, and when he was making a protest argument he didn’t have any traction at all,” said Matheson. “His momentum shifted when he started talking about principles, and that was where you started to see him scoop up Gary Johnson placeholder-type votes.”
Although prominent Republican officials have stopped short of supporting McMullin, he has received some help behind the scenes. Mitt Romney, who urged Utahns during the Republican primary to support Cruz in hopes of stopping Trump, agreed to rent his campaign email list to McMullin’s effort, affording him access to a rich trove of potential supporters.
With the stakes so high, and the White House within his reach, Trump has begun to be ruffled by McMullin’s surge. Recently, he dismissed his unlikely opponent as “a puppet of a loser,” referring to Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who supports him.
McMullin “is going from coffee shop to coffee shop. It's a full-time thing. He can't do anything, but he hurts us in Utah," Trump said. "If the incredible people of Utah ... go enough for this character that's running all over the state and we lose the state of Utah, that's devastating, because that means we're probably going to lose the Supreme Court of the United States for 60 years. By that time, it won't matter, because at the end of 60 years, we won't have a country left."
And the television host Lou Dobbs, a Trump supporter, recently characterized McMullin in a tweet as “nothing but a Globalist, Romney and Mormon Mafia Tool.” But the candidate, who is indeed a Mormon, has attempted to shrug off those attacks. “We sort of have fun with it here, the whole ‘Mormon mafia’ thing,” he said, “but at the end of the day it reminds people in the state who are members of the LDS faith of our persecution in history, and of why we’re here in Utah.”
Although they do not hope to win the longtime GOP bastion, Democrats and the Clinton campaign have seized on the political chaos there in hopes of padding their advantage. During a swing through the state last month on behalf of Clinton, noted feminist Gloria Steinem marveled at the state of play.
"I've been to Utah many times,” she said, “but never before has it been on the verge of becoming a two-party state.”
Indeed, it might be a shade more complicated than that: a state on the verge a three-party split — among Democrats, Republicans, and a conservative faction in exile.
Arizona, Taking On a Blue Tint?
For Democrats, Arizona represented a long game: They hoped changing demographics coupled with aggressive organization and registration efforts could make their party competitive by 2020 or, more likely, 2024.
But Trump’s candidacy has turned off some Republicans and energized Democrats, speeding the process and bringing the Grand Canyon State within reach. The Clinton campaign invested $2 million in Arizona last month and doubled its ad buy there on Wednesday; Clinton visited Phoenix to rally voters Wednesday evening and her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, will make two stops Thursday.
At her appearance on the Arizona State University campus, Clinton said the state is "in play for the first time in years" and that there is "a real chance to turn this state blue again."
Clinton’s efforts have been a boon to the state party even if she doesn’t win Arizona next week -- Trump still holds a 1.5 percentage point lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average. But after Tuesday, Democrats face a steep climb to reach parity with Republicans there and make it a perennial battleground.
“What we have right now is sort of an artificial bubble that’s been created by the self-immolating dumpster fire that is the Trump campaign,” said Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist who works with the state party. “If there was ever a race again with a generic [Republican] versus a generic [Democrat], we start out pretty far behind.”
“What we have right now is sort of an artificial bubble. … If there was ever a race again with a generic [Republican] versus a generic [Democrat], we’d start out pretty far behind.”
Republicans have 150,000 more registered voters than Democrats, though that’s down slightly from a 168,000-voter advantage four years ago. Democrats haven’t won the state in a presidential election since Bill Clinton carried it narrowly in 1996, the only time a Democrat won there since Harry Truman in 1948. The last time the state elected a Democratic senator was 1988.
Republicans are confident in their advantage both in 2016 and beyond. Robert Graham, the state party chairman, told RCP he believes if the election were today, Trump would carry Arizona by as much as seven percentage points. He touted the state party’s ground game, with 140 paid employees and 12,000 volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls to help mobilize voters.
“I’m very confident we’re going to carry Arizona, but we’re always cautiously optimistic, right?” Graham told RCP. “You don’t want to make everybody think we’re good and they take their foot off the gas. We will fight until the bell is struck at the end of Nov. 8.”
Trump hasn’t ceded campaigning in the state to Clinton. He visited Phoenix for a rally Saturday, and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was in the state Wednesday morning. Trump’s son Donald Jr., and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, an ally of the GOP nominee on immigration issues, will both be in Arizona Friday.
Democrats hope several factors beyond the presidential race could help tip the state toward Clinton. The two ballot initiatives -- one to raise the minimum wage and one to legalize marijuana -- are issues that Democrats hope will drive young progressives to the polls in higher numbers. And in Maricopa County, the most populous county in the state, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the controversial immigration figure whom Trump has praised throughout the campaign, is in a tight race for re-election. Republicans hope his race will drive conservative turnout in the area, but Democrats believe it provides added motivation for Latinos to register and vote.
Lisa James, a Republican consultant in the state, said Arizona has never been within reach for Democrats, and added that she thinks most Republicans would come home by Election Day. There are serious rifts within the state -- both GOP senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, oppose Trump, and Flake has been one of his most outspoken Republican critics. But James said news over the last week about the FBI looking into more emails potentially related to its investigation of Clinton, plus hikes in health insurance rates from the Affordable Care Act, which is deeply unpopular among Republicans there, would solidify the base.
“They may hold their nose a little bit when they’re voting, they may hold their nose a lot, but it’s a Republican state and they’re voting their values,” she said.
But if Democrats are able to carry Arizona this year, they hope in the future that it can join with Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, which have trended toward Democrats thanks to growing Latino populations, to provide a Western firewall. Jim Pederson, a former chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said it could represent a “new South” for the party.
“It is a good trend for our state,” Pederson told RCP. “And if you combine that with other states, it could be a real beachhead for the Democrats, or a real collection of electoral votes -- a collection of states that could always be classed as swing states going into future cycles.”
African-American Turnout in Decline
Without President Obama on the ballot in 2016, political scientists and elections analysts predict that turnout among black voters will ultimately be smaller in comparison with what was seen in 2008 and 2012. In contrast, Latino voting as a percentage of the total electorate is expected to increase, reflecting opposition to Donald Trump’s agenda and rhetoric.
During one of several interviews taped this week for African-American radio programs, Obama strongly urged the black community to make its voice heard by Nov. 8, even if ballots for Clinton are protests against Trump.
"The African-American vote right now is not as solid as it needs to be," Obama said.
"The African-American vote right now is not as solid as it needs to be."
“If you really care about my presidency and what we’ve accomplished, you are going to go and vote,” the president said Wednesday on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.” “If we let this thing slip and I’ve got a situation where my last two months in office are preparing for a transition to Donald Trump [who has suggested he would] sit in the Oval Office and reverse every single thing that we’ve done – all the work we’ve done to make sure people get overtime, all the work we’ve done to make sure women get paid the same as men for doing the same job, all the work we’ve done so that 20 million people get health care, all the work we’ve done to make sure we’re doing something about climate change … [will be undone] because folks stayed home.”
The president’s worries about “under-performing” turnout on behalf of Democratic candidates from Clinton on down are corroborated by recent early voting data examining African-American participation in key swing states. Analysts caution, however, that while the numbers appear down in comparison to the same period four or eight years ago, the final weekend push for black turnout in some states is expected to drive up statistics by Nov. 8.
In the 2012 election between Obama and Mitt Romney, blacks turned out at a higher rate than whites, according to the Census Bureau. More than 66 percent of eligible black voters participated four years ago, compared to 64.1 percent of whites.
The question behind the matchup between Trump and Clinton is not whether black voters support the GOP ticket – 2 percent to 4 percent of black respondents supported the New York businessman in recent surveys. The question is whether African-American voters – and especially younger ones -- who celebrated the first black president are as excited by Clinton, who could become the first female president.
Craig Coad, an African-American catering cook in Winston-Salem, N.C., told RealClearPolitics he voted early for Clinton because Democratic Party volunteers knocked on his door and motivated him, and because he is eager to defeat Trump. “He’s too wild, too overbearing,” he said.
“No-brainer” is how John Davis, a black small business owner in Cleveland, described his early vote for Clinton in the last week. “I prefer to have her than Trump because I don’t trust him,” he told RCP. “I’m tired of it now.”
But in North Carolina, data show a five-percentage-point drop-off in early voting among African-Americans compared to the same period in 2012. In Florida, there’s a three-point fall-off this year compared with 2008, the most recent year for which the data are available.
The lag observed this week among black voters has more than one explanation, said Maurice Hobson, assistant professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “The first thing is the Obama effect,” he said in an interview. “The first African-American president got all kinds of people excited and out and about.” The second factor is tied to Bernie Sanders’ appeal to younger voters during a time in which they were initially introduced to Clinton as a presidential contender. “Many got behind Bernie Sanders because he presented a new platform of politics and what democracy could be,” Hobson added. And on the other end of the age spectrum, older black voters were re-introduced to Hillary Clinton’s controversial “super predators” rhetoric about young criminals, used in a 1996 speech, as well as the impact on black communities of President Clinton’s 1994 enactment of a mandatory life sentence provision known as “three strikes” in a major crime bill. “There is this new, black Southern voice,” Hobson continued, “and in it you get a very different read on Bill Clinton, who is connected to Hillary Clinton.” The result: “What we see is less-than-stellar early voting in terms of African-Americans."
Obama campaigned for Clinton in North Carolina Wednesday, repeating his mantras to register, vote early, and stop Trump. The president said Clinton is “the right person at the right time” to sit in the Oval Office, “but all the progress that we made over the last eight years, all the progress we hope to make over the next eight years, all of that goes out the window if we don’t win this election,” he said at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Trump, he said, is the wrong choice to lead America. “This is somebody who vilifies minorities, vilifies immigrants, vilifies people of Muslim faith, makes fun of Americans with disabilities. How is that person going to be your voice?” Obama asked.
—Alexis Simendinger, with additional reporting from Caitlin Huey-Burns