By Hastings Wyman –
In the last week, poll numbers in the presidential race have gotten tighter. Hillary Clinton enjoyed a 9-point lead after a successful Democratic Convention, helped by several bad weeks by goof-prone Donald Trump. But the latest national survey by CNN-ORC, taken Sept. 1- 4, showed Trump with a 45% to 43% edge over Clinton.
Clinton’s lead melted away under the heat of the still-nagging email “scandal” and the pay-for-play allegations involving donors to her foundation while she was secretary of state. Moreover, Trump has begun to stay on script more often than not, demonstrated an uncharacteristic diplomatic skill with his visit to Mexico’s president, and shown at least a semblance of concern for the problems of inner-cities with his visit to a black church in Detroit.
Clinton, however, has been doing well in state surveys. According to a Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll of likely voters in all fifty states, taken from August 9 through September 1, only six Southern states (AL, AR, KY, LA, OK & TN) are solid bets for the GOP (i.e., Trump has a ten-point or more lead over Clinton). The survey rates five Southern states as toss-ups (FL, GA, MS, NC & TX); one as leaning Democratic (VA); and one leaning Republican (SC).
The South – the Old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma – has been providing a strong base for the GOP for decades, handing near-solid majorities for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush (the first go-round) and George W. Bush, broken finally by Barack Obama’s inroads. With Dixie home to 175 electoral votes – 64.8% of the 270 needed to win the election, for Clinton to be competitive in nearly half of the Southern states deprives Trump of a large bloc of electoral votes that he should be able to count on without a major expenditure of money and organizational effort.
Clinton has some advantages in the region. Despite her unpopularity with conservatives, Clinton’s eight years as First Lady provided her with a large number of political contacts throughout the South. Prior to that, her nearly 12 years as First Lady of Arkansas gave her hands-on experience with Southern voters. Moreover, one can’t discount the possibility that Trump will once again cram both feet in his mouth at once, that the highly negative media treatment he’s getting will finally reduce his support among independents, and that the Democratic Party’s residual muscle – faced with a possible Trump victory – will produce a turnout that the GOP can’t match. So Clinton could stay competitive in some of the South through Election Day. This has to be good news for Clinton.
A caution, however. The Post-SurveyMonkey state polls were largely taken before the recent swing back to Trump. Chances are Trump is now stronger – though hardly secure – in these former GOP bailiwicks than he was a month ago.
Given the unprecedented negatives of both Trump and Clinton, and the volatility of this year’s political environment, any forecast of a likely winner at this point is little more than guess-work. The lead is likely to switch back and forth several times before November 8.
But what is clear is that the South is more uncertain in its presidential preferences than it has been in decades. Many Southern voters will receive more attention from both campaigns than they have been used to (or even want). And the political clout of Dixie’s political activists – Republican evangelicals and Democratic African Americans, for starters – is likely to be enhanced. Stay tuned.