observations and opinion
Can Hillary win there?
Kansas may be the most reliably Republican state in U.S. Presidential politics. Yet in early August 2016, the Democratic Party Presidential candidate is closing in on her Republican rival there.
After a tornado whisks Dorothy Gale off the prairie and into the glittering land of Oz, she tells her dog “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” When people quote her today, they often mean it as code: we have left the safe, familiar, square precincts of home. We have landed somewhere strange. We aren’t in Kansas anymore.
Kansas isn’t actually square: it’s a rectangle, with a tiny bite out of its northeast corner where a river carves a natural border with neighbor state Missouri. But surrounded as it is, by the rest of America, Kansas looks pretty darned square.
Kansas sits squarely in the middle of America – dead center on the map. Its per capita household income sits right in the middle, too. But where once Kansas represented what was typical of America, time and events have passed it by.
Overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Christian, uncommonly rural and agricultural, Kansas is the 15th largest state by area, but its 2.9 million population ranks at 34th. It is the 41st least dense state in the union, by population density. Its black population hovers perpetually around 6%, below the average in the US. At 77% its non-Hispanic white population is on the high side of average, but so is its booming Latino population (almost tripled by 2010 to 11%).
As white as it is, Kansas is also really “red” in the modern sense: a sizable majority of Kansans describe themselves as conservative and the state has an extraordinary history of dominance by the Republican Party. Kansas is one of those states that neither party has to pay attention to, because both the GOP and the Democrats know how things will turn out.
The Republicans have lost Kansas on only seven occasions, each one of them flukey:
But Kansas has been reliably elephantine ever since 1964: popular Bill Clinton got 36% against native Kansan Bob Dole; Al Gore won the national popular vote but in Kansas, just 37%. Kerry did worse in ’04 and even Barack Obama barely broke 41% in ’08. Mitt Romney, who lost the country by less than 5% in 2012, won Kansas by 22 points.
In the US Electoral College, which actually chooses the President based on winner-takes-all popular vote, Kansas is slightly over represented (its 6 EVs represent 1.11% of votes whereas Kansas houses less than 1% of the national population). Everyone knows who’s getting those 6 electoral votes.
Yet Kansas is, in a very real way, the canary in the coal mine for Republicans in the year of Donald Trump. Will traditional, Christian conservative semi-rural but affluent Kansas remain loyal to the Republican brand? Or will brash, rude and loud Donald Trump – a most un-Kansas style candidate – alienate the Jayhawk voters?
So far, Trump’s schtick hasn’t worked in Kansas: he garnered only 23% of the primary vote there in 2016 as opposed to Ted Cruz’ 48%. His presidential poll standing rests on two things: (1) The aforementioned fierce Republican brand loyalty and (2) Kansas really doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. Democrats in the state voted 2-1 against her in the primaries. Many Kansans polled today, who say they are voting for Trump, explain their choice is not “for” the alleged billionaire, but against Clinton.
The origins of this animosity are not entirely clear. As first lady, New York US senator and Secretary of State, Hillary appears to have done no greater harm to Kansas than anywhere else. True, her husband humiliated beloved native son Bob Dole in 1996. That didn’t help her cause but it was also a generation ago. No, in all likelihood Hillary’s Kansas unpopularity is simply rooted in the relentless two decade-long GOP / FoxNews defamation campaign that hurts her everywhere.
Yet the latest poll, taken after the conventions, shows a huge leap in Clinton’s standing: she has cut Trump’s 17 point July lead down to 5 percent. That is largely attributable to an increase in the number of Kansans who have doubts about The Donald. But her favourables are up too.
This points to an interesting opportunity for Clinton: her personal unpopularity is one of the few things giving buoyancy to Trump’s poll numbers. Wherever Hillary can claw her way up from deeply negative territory personally, that takes away a critical excuse for people to stay loyal to the GOP brand. (The same is true in reverse of course: the remarkably high levels of hostility towards Trump among the American population are a key element in lifting Clinton’s electoral prospects ahead of her personal reputation).
If there was a way for Clinton to make a dent in the reputation problem, it would seal the deal with many Americans currently holding their noses to stay loyal to the Republican brand. Unfortunately for Hillary, neither she nor her crew has demonstrated any particular talent for capitalizing on such a political opportunity. They often don’t see the signs and when they do see the signs, they often mis-read them. Instead of figuring out her own weakness (“the kids don’t like me because I seem inauthentic and calculating”) she finds a weakness in the others (“the kids are wrong not to like me”) or she undergoes a calculated conversion (“okay, I get it now, we will tax the hell out of Wall Street. Okaaay?”) All of it reinforces the impression that she is not “real.”
Further, when it comes to the reputation problem (she is too slippery, dissembles, caters rather than leads, puts ambition ahead of principle) it is hard to know how Hillary can improve. Her potentially fatal flaw is that in this age when “authenticity” (or a performance feigning authenticity) is suddenly so highly valued, she often seems to be stiff, guarded and over-cautious (or predictably calculating, as discussed above). One can credit her with genuine political professionalism (I do) but the Zeitgeist seems hostile to such proclivity.
This takes us back to Kansas. In a state where Clinton’s policy preferences are so markedly out of sync with the majority view, perhaps Kansas offers her the opportunity to demonstrate some of that much-needed authenticity. She can re-iterate her genuinely moderate, internationalist economic and political policies (which are really quite popular with Republicans) but also deliver some authentically unpopular messages too: she’s pro choice, she’s for gun control, she’s for voting rights, she’s for gay rights. And so on. She can be REAL.
Clinton is never going to win Kansas trying to be a Republican – hell, she’s probably never going to win it no matter what she does – so she might as well go there and be an authentic Democrat. After all, honesty is the one thing they aren’t expecting from her in the middle of the country.