By Hastings Wyman –
Just as pollsters and pundits, including yours truly, had buried Donald Trump’s presidential prospects, indeed, were chiseling his name into the tombstone, the wind began to shift. CNN moved Florida and Nevada from leaning Clinton to tossup; RealClearPolitics did the same thing for Pennsylvania.
Then on Friday, FBI Director James Comey dropped a bombshell, revealing that the agency was reviewing some one thousand additional Hillary Clinton-related emails found during its investigation of former US Rep. Anthony Wiener (D). Because most voters have made up their minds, late-breaking developments often have limited effect, but the first post-Comey poll, taken for ABC News/Washington Post, showed the race has tightened sharply, going from a 12-point lead for Clinton a week earlier to a 2-point lead post-Comey. The latest numbers are 47% Clinton, 45% Trump, suggesting battleground state polls may move as well.
The Trump campaign was quick to jump on the issue. In toss-up North Carolina, where Mike Pence was campaigning when the Comey news came out, the veep nominee, referencing the re-opened investigation, told a Republican audience that “the race is on” and cited the “fast and loose ethics of the Clintons,” reported the News & Observer, while the crowd chanted “lock her up.”
According to interviews with political insiders in four swing states – Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia – completed prior to Comey’s Friday letter to Congress about Clinton’s emails, the race was already tightening. Several battleground state polls, including Bloomberg in Florida, showed Trump was recovering somewhat from allegations by a number of women that he had had inappropriate physical contact with them. In addition, the Obama Administration’s announcement that health insurance rates under the Affordable Care Act would jump 25% next year gave credibility to the GOP’s criticism of Obamacare.
In North Carolina, Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll, in the midst of a poll, says “Preliminary data – and other polls – suggests North Carolina is still very much a swing state, very much up in the air.” At that point, the Comey email revelation had not been made public.
Omens in North Carolina from early voting in person and by mail are mixed, but generally favor Clinton. Quinnipiac found that early voters in the Tar Heel State favored Clinton by 62% to 34%, not including mailed-ballots. Democrats, who comprise 40% of registered voters, have cast 47% of ballots by mail and in person, compared to 51% in 2012. Republicans, with 30% of registered voters, have cast 29% of the early votes, compared to 29% four years ago. Black and white early voters are both proportional to their share of registered voters.
Ferrel Guillory, Director of the University of North Carolina’s Program on Public Life, notes that Trump “never breaks 50% in any of the polls.” He acknowledges that “enough Southerners of our generation and the baby-boom generation have become culturally conservative Republicans and they support him,” noting also Trump’s strength with blue-collar white men. He points out, however, that Clinton and Michelle Obama were campaigning in Winston-Salem: “There are these places in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida that have modernized themselves, millennials starting families, and they just don’t like Trump.”
In Florida, Professor Susan MacManus, political scientist at the University of South Florida, said “The race has definitely tightened, because [Trump] has been everywhere,” holding rallies across the state. “White blue collar voters are showing up in droves.” She notes that Trump’s attacks on media bias resonate with many voters. She adds that the Obamacare premium hike is also helping Trump. “It’s still really, really close,” noting that “I’ve never seen so much softness in both parties’ bases.”
A longtime Sunshine State GOP operative tells SPR, “I’d state [Florida] is within the margin of error, one way or the other. It’s too close to call.” Early voting, traditionally a priority for Democrats, has now broadened its appeal: “Both sides figured out it could bank their votes.” And he cites plusses for both sides, pointing out that 20,000 folks turned up for a Trump rally in Tallahassee. “They had to turn people away… Intensity is on Trump’s side. Organization is on Clinton’s side.” He also notes that “Clinton voters are going to vote because they hate Trump.”
In Georgia, state Rep. Calvin Smyre (D), a long-time leader in the state’s Democratic politics, says “We are encouraged by our numbers on early voting, but it has evened out now… We have got to keep pushing the throttle. We’ve got a big weekend plan for activities throughout the state.” Noting that Georgia has not been universally declared a battleground state, he says “We are using the resources that we have. But we would love a visit” from Hillary or Tim Kaine. In any case, however, he says “I feel good about Georgia,” predicting a tight race.
One Atlanta insider says “Trump is favored, but not by a landslide.” The major problem for Trump – and for the GOP – is that the Peach State’s demographics have changed. In 2000, Georgia’s registered voters were 24.5% black and 73.6% white. In the latest accounting from the Secretary of State’s office, the registration is now 29.8% black to 57.2% white, with the balance Hispanics, Asians and others.
In 2012, while Democrats did better among early voters, Romney still carried them – just not by as much as he carried Election Day voters. Romney won early/absentee votes by 53% to 47%, but Election Day voters by 54% to 44%. Some voting rights activists have accused Secretary of State Brian Kemp of dragging his feet on processing recent registrations, a charge he dismisses, noting that county officials have that responsibility.
Advance voting in person in Georgia far outweighs mail-in absentee ballots, by 490,514 to 88,025 as of last Monday. In 2012, Romney carried mail-in ballots by 58% to 41% and carried advance in-person voting by 52% to 48%.
In Virginia, where Clinton’s lead has at times reached double digits, the GOP’s hopes are based on anecdotal evidence, as well as last minute surges for Republican gubernatorial and US Senate candidates in 2013 and 2014.
Morton Blackwell, Virginia’s Republican National Committeeman, is also president of The Leadership Institute, where he trains conservative activists. He reports that graduates of his program going door-to-door for Trump in liberalish Northern Virginia say that people want to make sure the volunteers are really Republicans, then say, “I’m for Trump, but please don’t tell my neighbors.” Blackwell adds, “The social pressure is enormous in the media, and people may not tell professional pollsters – people they don’t know – that they are for Trump.”
He also notes that Trump signs dominate rural Virginia and that demand was so high that GOP activists ran out of signs, but finally were able to get more.
While the last week, and the last three days in particular, have helped Donald Trump, don’t assume that this is a trend that will continue. Blockbuster revelations could burst onto the campaign again, dominating media coverage and favoring either candidate.
In sum, the battleground South remains a battleground. And the national outlook continues to favor Clinton, but not by as much. Stay tuned.