Columns » Jay Barth

Arkansas 2016: the microclimate election



Last week, the crew at produced one of those maps that sucked away a chunk of my day. In it, the potential impact of Hillary Clinton's exceptionally high support with voters of color and whites with a college degree and Donald Trump's extraordinary appeal with whites without a college education are deciphered in a map that includes every county across the United States. The counties that have the potential to shift in the Democratic direction in relation to the 2012 election are shaded blue, and those where Trump will likely perform better than Mitt Romney are red. "The 2016 election is poised to be among the most polarized elections ever, not only along gender and generational lines, but especially along lines of race and educational attainment," was how FiveThirtyEight summed things up. The picture of that polarization is a map bleeding red in the northeast quadrant of the country — running from Maine to Minnesota — and a decidedly bluer South and Southwest.

The map gets even more interesting when one hones in on the likely shifts within states. While the movement from 2012 will not be as significant in Arkansas as in other states, variance created by the Trump candidacy does show itself across every county here as well. Unlike the past several election cycles in Arkansas, 2016 is a story of political microclimates.

In the lead-up to the past four Arkansas election cycles, the forecast has been a fairly simple one: strong winds blowing in the GOP direction. The only questions were these: Which parts of the state will be hit hardest by the gusts, and how many Democrats up and down the ballot will be blown out of office?

When President Obama was elected in 2008, the then-weak Arkansas GOP produced few candidates to take advantage of disaffection with Obama, which was particularly strong among white voters in rural portions of the state. In 2010, the strong winds blowing in the Republican direction showed themselves early in the year and were even more intense by Election Day, with Republicans winning in many state legislative races and in three statewide races despite being disadvantaged in fundraising and electoral experience. Two years later, in 2012, Mitt Romney won resoundingly and brought enough state legislators along with him to give Republicans a clear majority in the state Senate and a smaller one in the state House. In 2014, the final statewide Democrat, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, was flushed out of office, the GOP took control of every other statewide office, and the historic majority party was shellacked in legislative battles. These dynamics throughout the Obama years mark the starkest electoral change in any American state in modern history.

Undoubtedly, as shown in the FiveThirtyEight map, Trumpism has strong adherents in some of those Arkansas counties that have been newly receptive to Republicanism in the Obama era — the "rural swing" counties and Ozark counties that lack economic vibrancy. But, the backlash to Trump is also intense, particularly among better-educated whites and persons of color. While the state has a lower college graduation rate than all but a handful of others, there are Arkansas counties where Clinton has significant growth potential over Obama. In addition to Pulaski County (Arkansas's largest), these include the fastest growing counties in the state — burgeoning Northwest Arkansas and the suburban counties around Little Rock. Clinton will outperform Obama in Arkansas, driven by large changes in a handful of counties.

There will be implications for the competitive state legislative races underway, which are driven by turnout patterns at the top of the ticket. Unquestionably, GOP candidates in certain districts with pro-Trump demographics (such as incumbent Reps. Mary Bentley of Perryville and Mike Holcomb from a rural district between Sheridan and Monticello) will be advantaged. Indeed, having Trump at the top of the ticket may pull Republicans across Arkansas to victory. More of the contested races this cycle, however, are in areas where the backlash to Trump is likely to be most intense. Those include the Maumelle district being defended by Rep. Mark Lowery, the West Little Rock district now held by Rep. Jim Sorvillo and several Northwest Arkansas districts; Democrats will likely overperform there.

While the stage may be set for a few Democratic pickups in the legislature, there are two caveats. First, it remains unclear how much ticket-splitting we will see. There was an almost perfect correlation from the top of the ticket to the bottom in Arkansas in the 2014 election cycle, but the Trump candidacy may be seen as so exceptional by voters that we see a rebirth of ticket-splitting this cycle. Second, Donald Trump's relative underperformance may occur in parts of the state where GOP candidates have a big margin with which to work. No matter how poorly Trump does in Benton County, for instance, there is no real likelihood that the heavily Republican county will go for Clinton at the end of the day. Thus, overperformance does not equate to victory for Democrats, particularly in the parts of the state where Republicans have built such clear advantages in recent years.

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