Salt Lake City (CNN)In a less volatile election cycle, the notion that Democrats would be on offense in red states like Utah, Arizona and Georgia would suggest the presidential race was effectively over.
No one is willing to make that kind of bet in a race that has defied all political norms. But as Donald Trump’s downward spiral continues in round after round of battleground polls, and the Hillary Clinton campaign has begun to dabble in ruby-red states, Democrats are clearly feeling bullish. Some are now openly mulling the possibility of a Clinton blowout in November.
Even Trump acknowledged Thursday that his campaign was “having a tremendous problem in Utah,” a reliably Republican state where Mitt Romney won more than 70% of the vote in 2012 and the hunger for another choice ushered independent candidate Evan McMullin, who has strong ties to Utah and the LDS community, into the presidential race this week.
There are far too many variables at play over the next three months for anyone to say with certainty how the race will end. The two major candidates are intensely disliked by the electorate. This week, Clinton has once again been shadowed by the controversy over her emails and her ties to the Clinton Foundation as secretary of state. Trump is a contender who has shown an extraordinary level of resilience in overcoming controversy.
But Mitch Stewart, who was the Obama campaign’s battleground states director in 2012, said Clinton’s strengthened position could dramatically reconfigure the electoral map for Democrats — helping to lay groundwork for a Democratic transformation of states like Arizona and Georgia that were not expected to be competitive until 2020 or 2024.
“In 2008 when we won by six or seven points, we got relatively close in a state like Georgia, and would have gotten close in a state like Arizona if John McCain hadn’t been senator there,” Stewart said. “If you add three, or four, or five points on top of that — which is where Secretary Clinton is right now — it makes sense that Arizona and Georgia are basically tied. That’s where the race is given the strength of her candidacy and the weakness of his.”
Clinton could be looking at a sweep of the map that could net as many as 380 electoral votes, Stewart said: potentially “a massive, massive win.”
The Clinton campaign is taking pains not to look overconfident at this early juncture. It says she has always hoped to organize in all 50 states to aid down-ballot Democratic candidates. Moreover, Clinton and allies are not spending any real money in those three red states yet. But they are gearing up for a six-figure investment in field operations and voter registration in Arizona and Georgia that would force Trump to defend his position in those states.
Clinton had a small lead over Trump in an Atlanta Journal Constitution poll
released earlier this month (Clinton at 44% and Trump at 40%).
“Some states may flip and some states may not change overnight, but being focused on organizing is something that’s important, particularly this year because it’s a dynamic race,” said Marlon Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement. “Our goal is to figure out how we get to 270 electoral votes in the most efficient way, and if that means that there’s a couple different pathways that could potentially open up, we must explore them.”
The race will be still be won or lost this year in the battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida where Trump looked competitive before his summer series of unforced errors. A new round of polls from Quinnipiac and NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist show that she has moved into a double-digit lead over Trump in Pennsylvania, while displaying a narrow edge over Trump in Ohio. The race in Florida is a virtual tie.
Trump’s advisers insist that they are still poised to win Arizona, Georgia and Utah, and that they have many paths to 270 electoral votes, but his weakened position in states that Romney won easily in 2012 raises serious questions about the viability of his candidacy.
Before Trump ever entered the picture, Republicans were facing a difficult electoral map, because 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic in the last six presidential cycles — essentially giving Democrats a base of 242 electoral votes on their path to 270.
Trump has boasted that his unusual appeal will put some of those reliable Democratic states in play, including Michigan (16 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), and Wisconsin (10 electoral votes). But so far there is little evidence that is true, and few political strategists can map out a path to victory for Trump unless he wins all the states that Romney won in 2012, including Arizona, Georgia and Utah.
“Trump has driven away a big chunk of voters that used to be solid Republican voters. That puts states in play that should not be in play,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “The electoral map was already hard to begin with, given the demographic shifts in battleground states likes Colorado and Virginia. Trump just made it harder by finding a way to be more unpopular and more unlikeable than the most unpopular and unlikeable Democratic nominee in modern history.”
Trump’s troubles in Utah
Arizona has long held potential for Democrats because of its growing Hispanic population, but the movement in their direction has been accelerated by Trump’s divisive rhetoric about Mexicans and immigration.
In Georgia, Democratic groups have made a huge push to register growing numbers of minority voters, particularly targeting black and Hispanic voters who live around Atlanta. (Romney won Arizona by 10 points and Georgia by 8 points in 2012.)
But it is deep-red Utah that has revealed the deep vulnerabilities of Trump’s candidacy this year. Romney’s 2012 showing was in part because of the strength of his candidacy among Mormon voters who make up 60% of the state’s population. Republicans George W. Bush captured 72% in 2004 and John McCain 63% in 2008.
Trump and Clinton were virtually tied in some Utah surveys earlier this year, and Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, noted that Trump has been unable to break 40% in the most recent Utah polls. Libertarian Gary Johnson has been surging in Utah, and McMullin jumped into the mix this week.
“Republicans begin any election in the state of Utah with an enormous advantage,” Karpowitz said. “But there are many Utahans who are very conflicted, and very ambivalent about his candidacy.”
Trump’s biggest hurdle is among conservative Mormon voters, who have been appalled by HIS tone, as well as his call for travel ban on Muslims — the kind of singling out of a religious minority that carries echoes of the discrimination that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints faced historically.
“There is a conflict between their political identity and some core religious values that they hold dear,” said Karpowitz. “So when Donald Trump talks about a religious test for immigration or talks about refugees in ways that seem disrespectful or dismissive of their concerns or needs, that resonates with some members of the LDS church.”
Clinton attempted to tap into to the antipathy for Trump within that huge voting bloc, by writing in the in the Deseret News this week about her opposition to Trump’s call for a Muslim ban and her work on religious liberty as secretary of state.
Still, back in June, Utah voters were ready to give Trump a second chance even after giving him his lowest vote total of any primary or caucus, said Kirk Jowers, an election attorney who is the former director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
“We wanted to vote for a Republican nominee as we have done in every election since 1964, and Hillary Clinton is certainly is not the one who could steal some of those votes away in a normal election,” Jowers said. “But his behavior, particularly in August, has been so outrageous. He doubled down on all the things that were most offensive to us…. This doubling down that he’s been doing has made it close to impossible for us to get on board.”
Many of the voters who gathered at McMullin’s official launch Wednesday night expressed those kinds of sentiments and their disgust with Trump.
At the event to recruit volunteers to gather signatures for McMullin, who needs 1,000 by next Monday to qualify for the Utah ballot, a number of attendees said they had heard about McMullin’s candidacy on Facebook and were drawn to his conservative background and his biography as a former CIA operative.
Even though McMullin has little — or no chance — of winning the presidency, given that ballot access deadlines have passed in all but 14 states, a number of voters said they were thrilled to have a candidate they felt comfortable backing.
Victoria Bearden, a 36-year-old Republican from Salt Lake City, was one of many who approached McMullin after his speech to thank him for giving her a choice.
Until McMullin, she had been planning to sit out the presidential race: “I never thought I’d have to do that, because it just shows you how awful it is. And I know there’s millions of people out there feeling the same way I do.”
“I thought I was a Republican, but now I’m not sure what I am,” added Bearden, a former ballet dancer who has two young children. “I just feel like Trump is incompetent; he’s crazy, and he’s going to be more divisive than where we already are as a country. I just can’t trust the man.”
When she’s discussed McMullin’s candidacy with friends, she said, some have noted that she just might be throwing away her vote and helping elect Hillary Clinton.
“At this point, it’s like ‘Why not?'” she said. “Donald Trump is not going to win, and I think people need to stand up and show that they’re not happy with either [candidate] … If we go with our conscience and our heart, then you never know — it’s America. Anything is possible.”
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