New to the Toss-up Arena: Arizona, Georgia, and Utah are Defying Political Gravity

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By Scott Crass / 10.21.2016

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Joke of the Day: Evan McMullin has pulled into a three-way with Clinton and Trump in Utah. That’s the only time you’ll ever hear the terms “Utah,” and “three-way” in the same sentence. – Comedian Jimmy Fallon

When it comes to closely contested states at the Presidential level, all cycles are not created equal.

Every four years, campaigns reach conclusions at varying points in the campaign that some states we know as “battlegrounds” are on the verge of being locked up while others are simply unwinnable and move along. It’s very rare for new states to come on the radar this late in the cycle. Yet that’s exactly what is occurring. And for team Trump, which had no margin for error even in the current up-for-grab states, it is a sign that he can’t even count on places that should be natural to vote for him.

At the beginning of the cycle, gleeful Democrats were hopeful that the next two states they could put “in-play” would be Georgia and Arizona. They are succeeding beyond their wildest expectations. Three weeks before Election Day and with early voting well-underway in both states, public and internal polls give Clinton leads of five points in both states. More tellingly, Republican strategists have made no moves to contradict it and have even offered public confirmation that Clinton is leading (one Arizona strategist actually called her winning Arizona likely). For my part, I’ll see if the trend continues for another week or so but the two states may be quickly moving into what I call a “tossup and then-some territory.”

Of the two states, Arizona would probably flip first though, that’s simply a hunch that certainly can’t be based on recent history. After all, the state gave Bill Clinton a 1% win in 1996 but that was the first time a Democrat had won it since Harry Truman 48 years before. And it hasn’t come all that close to voting for a Democrat since. McCain’s 54% was largely attributed to the long-time good-will feelings within his home state, but Mitt Romney received the same showing four years later.

But the changing demographics have been fueling Democratic hopes of putting the state in play and that has been bearing out at the local level. In an open Senate race in ’12, Republican Congressman Jeff Flake began the race a heavy favorite but in the end staved off his opponent by a mere 3%. Democrats also made inroads in the Congressional delegation, controlling five of the state’s nine U.S. House seats after that election. More importantly, there are signs that Arizonans are slowly gravitating away from politicians who espouse hard-line stances, an opinion evidenced by the fact that controversial Maricopa County (Phoenix) Sheriff Joe Arapaio trails his challenger by 15 points.

Arizona has seen an influx of new residents, a fair number of whom are conservative. But many are little inclined to do Trump a favor. In 2012, Romney took 64% in the Fifth Congressional district. A recent poll showed Trump ahead by a mere 2%, a drop-off that would prove devastating to any Republican even if they had not been matched with growth among more liberal leaning Democrats. Unfortunately for them, they have been as Latinos and other young voters have relocated to Arizona at a rapid pace as well and this has given a lift to Democratic fortunes.

If Clinton can win or even keep her loss to the low-single digits in Maricopa and roll up large margins in Pima (Tucson) and the Navajo areas, she may well win the state’s eleven electoral votes.

As for Georgia, I can’t blame Democrats for feeling optimistic but despite producing a Democratic president, the state historically has not always turned out as “peachy” for Democrats on Election Day as polling suggests the weeks before. In 2014, Gubernatorial and Senate candidates Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn respectively, were considered to be in toss-up races yet lost by eight percent.

Now obviously, turnout for a Presidential election will dwarf that of a mid-term and hey, Democrats did flip next-door North Carolina in 2008, a seven point reversal from ’04. Many have called Gwinnett County, for the first-time minority-majority, crucial in the outcome. If Clinton enters Election Day only trailing by 2%, many feel a strong African-American turnout can propel her to victory.I suspect the final margin may fall between the 17,000 and 30,000 votes that four U.S. Senate races were decided by betwen 1980 and 1996. A true tossup is conceivable but I might give Trump the barest of edges right now.

Finally, there is Utah. If anyone had predicted that Utah would have even been “in-play” much less come tantalizingly close to voting anything but Republican, one would find that as believable as a major Presidential candidate suggesting that there is a widespread plot to rig the election. Imagine that. It is one of the most Republican states in the nation. But it also has a large Mormon population and to say that Donald Trump is not a natural fit is a bigger understatement than debate moderator Chris Wallace telling Clinton and Trump as they concluded the final debate that they’re probably glad they “never have to share a stage again.”

Evan McMullin entered the race in order to give voters another option and literally made the ballot on only a handful of states. Utah is his own state and supporters have tweeted a full house of volunteers at large venues. Multiple polls show him close with Trump and Clinton, which prompted comedian Jimmy Fallon to remark that this was the only time you’d hear the words “Utah,” and “three-way” in the same sentence. Another actually has him actually ahead of Trump. Many think the split could also propel Clinton to win the state but that’s a stretch.

Incidentally, Idaho is similar in dynamics and the suggestion is that McMullin could prevail in the “Gem” State as well, though the single poll I’m aware of still gives Trump a double-digit lead. Worth noting: were McMullen to pull out Utah, it would mark the first time since 1968 that a candidate outside the two major parties won a state.

As far as other states that offer surprise potential to vote outside the norm, keep an eye on Alaska. The 49th state was among the most reliably Republican states in the nation. Since the Palin era, or perhaps because of it, there has been a small but noticeable gains by Democrats. Normally, that wouldn’t be enough but the “Last Frontier” also has a stubbornly independent and iconoclastic streak which suggests Gary Johnson may get in the double digits. If that happens and enough Republican voters sour on Trump, a small Clinton plurality is not implausible, though the late-reporting “Bush” region wouldn’t make it evident until perhaps weeks later.

Finally, the Clinton campaign is also making a million dollar investment in Texas but that’s pocket-change. It is not unlike Bill Clinton making stops in a few fertilely Republican states, namely Wyoming, in the waning days of the 1992 campaign when his odds of winning the Presidency were nearly assured. At the end of the day, getting the extra three to four points will be hard but, with 38 electoral votes and a comfortable cushion elsewhere in the nation, team Clinton has little to lose by trying.

In closing, the movement at the Presidential level is defying political gravity. Then again, it’s just par for the course for this year anyway.

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