Hillary Clinton’s odds of winning the presidential race are nearly as high as the Harlem Globetrotters’ odds of winning their next matchup against the Washington Generals: currently 96 percent, according to the Daily Kos Elections model. That puts her in a similar position that Barack Obama was in, around this point in mid-October of 2008, where victory in the key swing states was no longer in doubt and the question became what other states, if any, to start pushing into.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the Clinton campaign is internally having that conversation now: whether to try to expand the map into red states, or redouble the efforts to lock down the current swing states and not let any of them inadvertently slip through the cracks. The Post’s article also contains a third, related option, which is to turn the focus more to retaking Congress. While the money that’s specifically in the hands of the Clinton campaign can’t be redirected like that, Priorities USA (the main Super PAC that’s supporting Clinton) is signaling that they plan to start focusing on the pivotal Senate races in Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. (Priorities USA can’t coordinate with the Clinton campaign, so they’re doing that on their own.)
While moving money into the red states is definitely a gamble, the red states are, in a way, more vulnerable than the swing states. Many of the red states just don’t have the infrastructure in place that would help the Republicans defend them; in other words, the swing states are already heavily fortified, with campaign offices, staffers, voter files, and everything else you need to fight a house-to-house battle. But if one party punches through the front lines, there’s just not much in the way of resources in the seemingly safe states that would help the other party keep fighting on the new terrain as they fall back. (If you want a military metaphor, think of France after the elaborately designed Maginot Line was breached in World War II. There was nothing for them to fall back to, and it turned into a rout.)
You can see those parallels in the news stories suddenly springing up about how the Republicans are suddenly worried about losing Arizona. NBC reports that there is a total of five staffers in the state, paid for jointly by the Trump campaign, the RNC, and the Arizona state GOP. No TV or radio advertising from the Trump campaign has happened, and only a five-digit sum is allocated for mailers. The Clinton campaign has started sending surrogates to Arizona (for instance, Chelsea Clinton will speak there on Wednesday), though the real question is how much they start to spend on advertising there.
So, instead of discussing the model by talking about the swing states like usual, let’s take a look at some of the red states, with an eye toward where, if anywhere, the Clinton campaign should expand to.
Arizona: Clinton 43.5, Trump 42.9 (+0.6) (36 percent odds of Democratic win)
Georgia: Trump 45.4, Clinton 44.2 (- 1.2) (25 percent odds of Democratic win)
Missouri: Trump 46.3, Clinton 42.3 (- 4.0) (3 percent odds of Democratic win)
South Carolina: Trump 47.4, Clinton 43.0 (- 6.4) (2 percent odds of Democratic win)
Mississippi: Trump 50.5, Clinton 43.0 (- 7.5) (2 percent odds of Democratic win)
First, let’s start with the red states where our model gives Trump something less than 99 percent odds of winning. (We could also include North Carolina in there, since Mitt Romney did win it in 2012. However, the Tar Heel State is leaning in Clinton’s direction already; her polling aggregate there gives her a 2.8 percent lead, and 74 percent odds of winning.)
The first thing you might notice is something you haven’t seen in our model until this week (though it was something you could see in the Huffington Post Pollster aggregates for much of the first half of the year): Clinton has pulled narrowly ahead in the poll aggregate in Arizona. That isn’t showing up as greater than 50 percent odds in the model, though, since it’s both a new development, and there’s still a “fundamentals” component to the model that weights it down a bit. Nevertheless, it’s still definitely the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity after North Carolina.
Georgia is the next best option; Clinton trails only narrowly in the polling average there, and our model gives her a 25 percent chance of a win based on current polls. Like Arizona, the demographic trends are in our favor in Georgia; the non-white share of the population is rapidly growing (partly because of immigration, but, unique to Georgia, also because of a reverse Great Migration, with many northern African Americans moving to the Atlanta area in the most recent decade), while white voters in the metropolitan areas are disproportionately college-educated.
After that is Missouri, which is the only other state after North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia that Mitt Romney won in 2012 but only by a single-digit margin (and keep in mind that John McCain won Missouri by only a fraction of a point in 2008, much closer than either Arizona or Georgia). However, unlike Arizona and Georgia, where we’ve seen many polls with Clinton ahead, we’ve only seen two polls all cycle with Clinton with a lead in Missouri, none since July and never with a lead of more than 2. Unfortunately, the demographic trend in Missouri is probably going the wrong way (which explains its loss of its bellwether status after being a key swing state for much of the 20th century); it has below-average education levels and once you get outside of the major metropolitan areas, it’s almost exclusively white.
Finally, the last two on the list might surprise you: South Carolina and Mississippi. You probably recall some recent South Carolina polls with Clinton trailing only by low single digits; Mississippi polls have been few and far between, but some of them have been close as well (in fact, Mason-Dixon saw a tied race, back in March). What these two states have in common is that they have the first and third highest percentage of African American residents of any states (37 in Mississippi, 28 in South Carolina). Any erosion among the white electorate when the black vote doesn’t erode (and in fact remains highly motivated and highly unified) means a closer race than we’re used to in these states.
There are, however, several other states that have a closer poll aggregate than South Carolina and Mississippi. South Carolina and Mississippi have slightly higher chances than those other states because they’ve had a very long-term, consistent polling pattern (again, thanks to the highly consistent black vote in those states), so they’re more locked-in on the model, while some of the other states, which we’ll discuss next, have only lately started to break in the Democrats’ direction.
Alaska: Trump 41.6, Clinton 35.7 (- 5.9)
Texas: Trump 45.7, Clinton 39.3 (- 6.4)
Indiana: Trump 47.2, Clinton 40.7 (- 6.5)
Kansas: Trump 47.8, Clinton 38.1 (- 9.7)
These are the states where Clinton has a <1 percent chance of winning according to the model, but where the poll aggregates find the race within single-digits. I’ll bet you wouldn’t have thought of Alaska as the best shot outside of the Arizona/Georgia/Missouri trio, but it is. That shouldn’t be that surprising, though; it was one of the few states where Obama fared better in 2012 (losing by 14 points) than in 2008 (losing by 19 points), and it’s also one of the most diverse red states (at 64 percent non-Hispanic white). On top of that, Gary Johnson is polling well here, and that seems to be coming disproportionately out of the GOP side.
Following that is Texas, truly the big enchilada here, with 38 electoral votes, and with a huge Hispanic population. The unfortunate flip-side, though, is that Texas is ridiculously expensive to do anything in, thanks to multiple expensive media markets. A million dollars to spend in Alaska would be a potential game-changer this year … while a million dollars in Texas would basically just be a burp in the wind. On the other hand, from a long-term perspective, if there’s one state to try and start building a foothold in, it’s Texas. If the Dems can transform Texas into a swing state on an ongoing basis, that would make it infinitely more difficult for the Republicans to win future presidential races.
Finally, there are two Midwestern states: Indiana and Kansas. While Barack Obama narrowly won Indiana in 2008 (perhaps gambling that he was already well-known there, at least in the portion that’s served by the Chicago media market), he didn’t play there at all in 2012 and the addition of Mike Pence to the GOP ticket had people assuming that it wouldn’t be within reach this year. However, Pence wasn’t that popular to begin with (he was possibly on track to lose his re-election, if he’d stuck around in Indiana), and as Trump becomes more toxic, polls have recently shown things getting interesting in Indiana, including a Monmouth poll from this week that had the race within 4 points.
And Kansas is another very remote possibility, at the far edge of the single digits. It’s possible that some of the unpopularity of Gov. Sam Brownback is rubbing off on all other Republicans, but really what’s happening is that one-quarter of Kansas’s population, the part that’s in KS-03, is peak Never Trump territory. The affluent, college-educated residents of the Kansas City metro area are disproportionately on the Kansas side of the border rather than the Missouri side, in Johnson County. Polls of KS-03 show not only a close House race there, but also show Clinton way ahead in the district, enough to bring the state as a whole within single digits.
South Dakota: Trump 52.0, Clinton 41.0 (- 11.0)
Montana: Trump 48.8, Clinton 36.8 (- 12.0)
Utah: Trump 41.1, Clinton 28.8 (- 12.3)
North Dakota: Trump 51.7, Clinton 34.0 (-17.7)
Finally, let’s look at some states that not only give Clinton less than a 1 percent chance of winning but aren’t that close in the polling aggregate, either, just for comparison purposes. You might recall that in 2008, the two states where Obama made a play very late in the game were Montana and North Dakota. It didn’t quite work … he lost Montana by 2 points and North Dakota by 8 points. Well, there’s not much basis for trying there this year; our polling aggregates put Clinton down by double digits in both states. (In fact, South Dakota presents a slightly better option than either of them this year, though not as good as Kansas.) Montana and North Dakota have considerably more Native Americans than most other states, but in terms of a minority vote, that’s about it; they’re both about 90 percent white overall, without large college-educated populations.
And then there’s Utah, which has gotten a lot of hype in the media, and even in the campaigns, as being close. (The Clinton campaign has made a show of sending surrogates there, for instance.) Our model, however, just isn’t seeing it. Yes, there are occasionally polls that find a close or even tied race (including one this week, from Y2 Analytics), but for every poll like that, there are several more that have a double-digit Trump lead. (Somehow those polls don’t get the same hype from the media.) Perhaps the theory is that independent candidate Evan McMullin will split the GOP vote here, but really what seems to be happening is that the late surge of interest in McMullin is also coming out of the state’s Never Trump camp, instead splitting the people who weren’t going to vote for Trump anyway (though perhaps that hurts Gary Johnson more than Clinton).
Here’s a final thought: maybe the criteria for which red states to expand into shouldn’t have so much to do with how close they are, but instead what else is on the ballot there? As I’ve argued before, you don’t really get a bonus, in terms of implementing your agenda, for having more electoral votes; they’re helpful for claiming a “mandate,” but a mandate and two dollars will get you a cup of coffee if you don’t control both chambers of Congress. So which of these red states have important down-ballot races?
Arizona: AZ-Sen (Likely R), AZ-01 (Tossup), AZ-02 (Likely R)
Missouri: MO-Sen (Lean R), MO-Gov (Tossup)
Alaska: AK-AL (Likely R)
Texas: TX-23 (Tossup)
Indiana: IN-Sen (Tossup), IN-Gov (Tossup), IN-02 (Likely R), IN-09 (Likely R)
Kansas: KS-03 (Lean R)
Montana: MT-Gov (Lean D), MT-AL (Likely R)
In terms of key Tossup races, Indiana may well be the most important one here; both its Senate and gubernatorial races are open seats, and fall in that category. (Evan Bayh is trying to get his old seat back in the Senate, while John Gregg, who narrowly lost to Mike Pence in 2012’s governor’s race, is trying again, this time against GOP Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb.) Missouri also has both a key Senate race and a key gubernatorial race. That may be an added incentive to make a big presidential push in those states, in the hopes of generating some coattails, even if they aren’t as close as Arizona and Georgia. (And Arizona, too, has a Senate race, though it’s barely competitive at this point. The open seat race in AZ-01 may be the big fight to watch in that state.)
Speaking of the Senate, let’s turn briefly to the Senate model before we go. The model has been essentially stable for nearly a month now, in the 55 to 60 percent range; today it’s at 57 percent. Below the surface, there’s a lot of volatility, but it’s all managed to cancel itself out in the end. The odds in Indiana and Wisconsin have both fallen a bit this week, in the wake of so-so polls in both of those races (which were in low single-digits, after seeing a lot of double-digit leads earlier in the cycle); Evan Bayh’s chances in Indiana are now 82 percent and Russ Feingold’s are 84 percent. This means, for the first time all year, Tammy Duckworth is now the likeliest person to pick up a Senate seat (she’s currently at 95 percent odds in Illinois).
On the plus side, though, in Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto has moved into a lead for the first time since we launched the model (54 percent odds, though Joe Heck has a paper-thin 42.3-42.1 lead in the polling aggregate). It’s unclear whether the Nevada Dems’ vaunted GOTV machine has finally kicked in, or if Heck is suffering among Republican voters for having disavowed Donald Trump … it’s probably a little of each, but either way, with Nevada potentially the pivotal seat for reaching 50 in the Senate, our increasing odds there compensate for the small decline in Indiana and Wisconsin.
UPDATE: I’m just going to assume it was because Hillary Clinton found this article and it spurred her to action, but on Monday morning, the Clinton campaign announced its first forays into the red states. They’ll be spending $2 million on TV and digital ads in Arizona (and lead off with a Michelle Obama visit on Thursday); they’re also spending $1 million on Missouri and Indiana from the Hillary Victory Fund (which is an entity separate from the campaign, designed for passing max-out-donor money through to the state parties). Most impressively, the campaign is also launching a one-week ad buy in Texas, highlighting her endorsements from newspapers in the Lone Star State.