January 24, 2016
Right now the election is all Iowa and New Hampshire all the time. In another several days, the focus shifts to South Carolina and Nevada. These early states are a crucial part of the winnowing process and they always matter, even when the nomination takes a long time.
But there are 46 other states, all of which vote in November, many of which might matter before then. If you’ll indulge my impatience a bit, it’s time to start taking a look at some of those other places. Some are pivot points in the primary contest, either for Democrats, Republicans, or both. Among them are some purple states that will help determine the presidency.
Even beyond that, some states have underlying conditions or trends, which show up in polling and can offer clues to what will happen elsewhere. As we try to answer some of the larger questions of the election cycle, it makes sense to find the magnifying glass.
Here are the states I’m extra curious about:
Tennessee: Votes 3/1, leans strongly GOP
There isn’t much chance of Tennessee voting for Hillary, Bernie, or any other Democrat in the fall. If they go that way, the election is a landslide, the Democrat swept the country by more than Barack Obama in 2008. While that’s not impossible, no sense yet in exploring that outcome.
Tennessee is on the list because of March 1. A pile of states vote on that date. Call it Super Tuesday, call it the SEC primary, call it a quick post-South Carolina pile-up, call it what you will, but most of the states participating are either deep southern (Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas) or very northern (Vermont, Minnesota, Massachusetts).
Unless things change drastically, to the point where you can throw out anything anyone is saying right now, Hillary Clinton will not lose Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas or Oklahoma. The first three of those (arguably all four) are not good targets for any surviving establishment-friendly Republican.
If Marco Rubio wants a big win on March 1, Tennessee is a good place to look for it. He might have an easier chance of winning Minnesota, but grabbing this one would shake up the narrative. Same goes for John Kasich, or any of the others in his cohort.
Right now, Trump has a huge lead in Massachusetts. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t lose it, but not only would Tennessee have a larger impact, it’s probably more in play. We don’t have any recent polling. The state was last surveyed in November. Trump and Ben Carson were ahead (this was back when he was still regularly doing well), Cruz and Rubio in the next tier.
Cruz spent time here on his Xmas Bus Tour, Rubio is apparently better organized than in some other states. Lamar Alexander has served Tennessee as governor or senator for most of the past few decades. He’s not a Cruz conservative. There’s at least some appetite for a milder choice.
It’s one of Bernie’s best bets for a southern upset. While November polling showed him down 40-50 points in some bordering states, the one Tennessee poll had him down 48/28, no larger gap than he faced in some Iowa polls at the time. With enough momentum, it’s in play.
Virginia: Votes 3/1, arguably the most purple state in the country
Once upon a time, Virginia was red. No more. President Obama won it twice. More importantly, in each election, the state was very close to the national popular vote. It’s not only up for grabs, it’s an indicator of what the rest of the country may think.
In a perfect world, you’d want to nominate a candidate who does well here. Neither party is likely to win the presidency without it. You can make the math work, but the alternative paths are more difficult and require a break from where each party has recently succeeded.
Democrats can slide by without it, but probably wouldn’t. Republicans would require a real shift to win without Virginia. Like Tennessee, there’s a real shortage of recent polling. My sense is this is a very good Marco Rubio state. I have absolutely no proof of this. He also needs progress to remain viable on 3/1.
It’s another place Bernie might make Hillary very nervous. She lost by a wide margin to Obama in 2008, but that was partially dependent on minority voters (not just African-Americans), who haven’t felt the Bern yet.
Anyway, between the primaries and November, really interesting place, one not talked about like Ohio and Florida. Terry McAuliffe, current Democratic governor, and longtime Clintonite gives Hillary an edge. Would make a loss look even worse.
Michigan: Votes 3/8, leans Democratic
Even before Flint Water became a national thing, Michigan would have wound up on the list. It’s a must-win for Trump. If a protectionist can’t win in the ancestral home of the auto industry, he’s not as viable as the betting markets and nervous insiders are thinking.
We also need to see how he starts registering with Independents and Democrats. Michigan is an open primary. Especially if the Sanders bubble has popped, some will turn out for Trump. If Bernie is still a major threat, it’s a must-win for him too.
Both outsider candidates are claiming they can expand the electorate in November. It’s the cornerstone of their arguments about electability, the reason voters and influencers should consider them as likely to win as Hillary or Marco.
Michigan is where they can show some proof, both by winning their respective contests and pulling voters in from outside the party. Democrats do not need to add states to their 2008-2012 coalition to win. They just need to avoid losing too many back.
When Democrats argue Nominee Bernie would cause an apocalypse of losing, they’re implying he couldn’t hold places like Michigan. Democrats can win semi-easily without Ohio (it’s a GOP must), could maybe win without Pennsylvania, but will lose if they don’t retain Michigan.
A Trump win looks different from how Republicans thought they’d get the White House back. He’s at a bit of a disadvantage in Virginia, which has a bunch of upscale, suburban folks who are doing pretty darn well right now. He might need to figure out how to get to 270 without it.
When he talks about appealing to Reagan Democrats, the Silent Majority, and doing better with black voters than any recent Republican, he’s talking about Michigan. If there’s a strategic advantage to nominating Trump, this is where it shows up.
If he and Sanders can’t take advantage of the Flint crisis to turn anger at politicians to their favor, they won’t go the distance.
Florida: Votes 3/15, leans slightly Republican
In 2000, Florida became a crucial state by holding up recognition of the president-elect for more than a month. From 1928 to the present, the losing candidate has only won Florida twice (1960, 1992). Democrats can win without it, but probably won’t. Republicans will not win without it.
It’s not a true swing state, it leans GOP, but not by much. The purple just has slightly more red than blue. It’s important to us now for a few reasons:
Along with Ohio, it’s the first winner-take-all state on the GOP side, and has plenty of delegates. The other very large states are apportioning delegates by congressional district or as a share of the overall vote.
Both Rubio and Jeb Bush owe their political careers to Florida voters, but Trump is currently way ahead in the polls. He leads their combined total. Any similar outcome on March 15 would destroy their hopes.
Republicans, Jeb in particular, are often reasonably popular with Florida Latinos. It provides a window to how the GOP can appeal to Hispanic voters elsewhere. There are a bunch of other demographic quirks (higher than average amount of seniors, etc.), that can help us project how things in other places might turn out, even if the mix is different than we find here.
Arizona: Votes 3/22, leans red
FiveThirtyEight did some research into which states are most important in the GOP primary. These are the primaries or caucuses that appear on each candidate’s path to the 1237 delegates needed for nomination.
Seeing Ohio or Florida on the list surprises nobody, but Arizona is an equally hard state to win without. As is often the case for non-Iowa/New Hampshire states, polling is spotty. Like Utah and other states in the Mountain West (Arizona has plenty of mountains, not just desert), Trump has a much smaller lead (if any) than elsewhere.
Nominee Rubio will definitely win Arizona. Nominee Cruz probably will. Nominee Trump might. He does need it in order to lock up the delegates ahead of the convention and avoid giving any establishment folks a chance to block him.
This is also a state Bernie needs in order to get nominated. Once we see what happens in Nevada, it will be easier to see what his odds are here. If he wins the Silver State, this one is very in play.
There isn’t much drama for November. If Democrats win Arizona, the election gets called for them well before midnight.
Maryland: Votes 4/26, leans strongly Democratic
This isn’t normally in play for November. If Republicans win it, they’ll have a very good night overall. There are a couple of interesting variables though. Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, just completed a very successful rookie year, in which he also successfully battled cancer.
Hogan’s approval rating is higher than Martin O’Malley’s highest when he held the same position prior to his presidential candidacy. Will this make Marylanders more open to a Republican, or is Hogan a one-off exception?
Bernie probably needs to win Maryland, or somewhere similar in order to get nominated. A closely contested Democratic Senate nomination is up for grabs on the same day. Both leading candidates have endorsed Hillary. Influential congressman Elijah Cummings has not yet. He also opted against joining the Senate scrum. He’s a wild card.
Normally, the combination of Catholics and African-Americans would strongly favor Clinton. If Maryland was voting in February, or even March, I would consider it off limits to Bernie. Late April is different. If he’s getting nominated, he’ll need to figure this out by then.
California: Votes 6/7, leans strongly Democratic
The last time California truly mattered in a primary race was 1972, when it picked George McGovern over Hubert Humphrey. The last time it provided the winning electoral margin in a presidential election was 1916, when it returned Woodrow Wilson to the White House instead of picking Charles Evans Hughes.
The last time two candidates really slugged it out in the Golden State was Gary Hart-Walter Mondale on the Democratic side in 1984. Hart’s win wasn’t enough to get him nominated, but the state got some time in the sun. Gerald Ford’s narrow victory over Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last close presidential election.
In 2008, California moved their primary date up in an attempt to avoid irrelevance, but wound up part of an enormous early Super Tuesday and didn’t get to stand out. Here’s their chance. With the high amount of proportionally assigned delegates on each side, if either or both race wind up being competitive, there’s a good chance of California voting before the nomination is clinched.
Sitting this late in the calendar, with only New Jersey having a decent amount of delegates in the last few weeks of the contest, still only a quarter of California’s, this is the opportunity for a traditional, influential California primary, maybe even two.
Beyond the primary outcomes, Republicans have done noticeably worse with Latino voters in California than Texas or Florida. When people talk about the GOP (or Trump in particular) striking out with Hispanics, California is what they’re thinking of.
Many analysts tie this to the 1994 vote on Proposition 187, which limited or eliminated public services for illegal aliens/undocumented citizens. Conventional wisdom is Team Elephant never recovered. There is some definite correlation, but I question the causation.
Big topic, which deserves separate coverage. Fortunately for you, we’ll get there much sooner than later. Stay tuned for more in-depth viewing of the above states and the key topics involving them. Clues are everywhere, if we’re willing to hang out with them for a bit.