Trump needs to run the table in the South. Can Clinton stop him?
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
(CFP) — The primary and caucus season across the South has largely come and gone (Republicans have voted everywhere except West Virginia; Democrats, Kentucky and West Virginia), leaving behind some clear trends and evidence about how things might play out in the fall.
First the trends: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton cut through the region like Sherman on steroids. She won every state save Oklahoma, most by whopping margins; he took everything except Texas and Oklahoma, which he lost to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.
Given that Clinton runs best among African-American voters, and Trump’s strongest support is among white working-class voters, this was no surprise. Both of those demographic groups dominate the Democratic and Republican vote, respectively, across the South.
The irony for Clinton, however, is that she is running extraordinarily well in a region where, as conventional wisdom would have it, she doesn’t have a prayer of winning in the fall. And the weak appeal she has exhibited among white voters turned up in Oklahoma, one of the South’s whiter states, where U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders beat her.
That bears repeating: An avowed socialist beat Clinton in Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, the thrice-married, frequently profane rich guy from Long Island rolled from Paragould to Pascagoula to Pensacola, with gobs of religious conservatives apparently willing to overlook his colorful biography in order to make America great again. More impressively, he beat Cruz in a region where the Texan should have done much better.
However, the primary results showed that there could be challenges ahead for Trump in his quest to keep the solid Republican South solid in the fall should he be the nominee.
And a Southern sweep is vital to his hopes of winning the White House. The last four times the Republican candidate carried the region, he won; the last four times he didn’t, he lost. (Bill Clinton carried four Southern states; Obama, three.)
For all of his victories, Trump did not crack 50 percent anywhere in the South, although he came close in Mississippi. That means that even in a region where his brand of populism seems to have struck a chord, more Republicans were opposed to voting for him than voted for him. In six states, he didn’t even crack 40 percent.
And it is also instructive to look at some of the places where Trump didn’t win.
He lost Atlanta and two of its suburban counties; Richmond and its suburbs; Little Rock; Oklahoma City; Columbia and Charleston, S.C.; Miami-Dade County (although that was to hometown U.S. Senator Marco Rubio); and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. In Tennessee, he barely carried Nashville and Memphis, winning only about 30 percent of the vote. He lost all of the major cities in Texas to Cruz, who, admittedly, had the home court advantage.
These results show that Trump’s political act may not be wearing as well with urban and suburban Southern Republicans as it is in small towns and rural areas. That probably won’t matter in the fall in places such as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina. But if he can’t win those reluctant-for-Trump voters over to his side by November, it could matter in other places.
We already know that Virginia, North Carolina and Florida will be battleground states because Obama carried all three. And he did so running against Republicans that had, more or less, the united backing of their party. Trump doesn’t have that now, and it’s unclear if he will.
And then there’s Georgia, which has a large and politically active African-American population that will crawl across broken glass to vote for Clinton. If Trump continues to show weakness in Atlanta and its suburbs, the Peach State could also be in play.
Tennessee and Arkansas are probably longer shots, primarily because Clinton will have fewer African-American voters on which she can rely. However, there is still a residual strain of affection for Clinton in some quarters in Arkansas, where she spent 10 years as first lady.
Of course, Clinton’s weakness among white voters shows why she may be the Democrat least equipped to carry anything south of the Mason-Dixon line. After all, if even white Democrats aren’t voting for her, how is she going to fare when white people who aren’t Democrats are voting against her? That hurdle could be too high to jump, even with extraordinary support among black voters.
Remember, though, that Clinton doesn’t have to win everything in the South; just two or three states could make Trump’s ascension to the White House darn near impossible. He either needs to run the table or find states elsewhere to make up the difference.
Can he do it? Well, Trump has proven that he has a knack for defying the odds, so a wise pundit doesn’t bet against him. But the primary results show it may prove a more difficult feat than the Donald expects.