In the past few years, as the pundits sorted out what they thought would be the most important Electoral College states in the 2020 presidential race, they have rightly tended to focus on the “Blue Wall” states. Those would be the Rust Belt and Midwest swing states with Great Lakes shorelines—particularly Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, three states that Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to win but lost to Donald Trump by a combined total of 77,000 votes.
While there were many reasons why Clinton didn’t win, the main reason was not that voters in these states loved Trump but that they didn’t like her. If she had won those three states she would be running as the incumbent this year.
But as we look at the map now, the important action appears to have moved 1,000-plus miles south and west, to what we might call the “Red Wall” states, especially Florida, Texas, and Arizona. Trump won those three states in 2016 and desperately needs to win them again this year. If he loses any two of those three Red Wall states, he is a dead man walking politically—even if he takes the three Blue Wall states.
It is the pandemic that has put these southern states in play, and the recent national COVID-19 resurgence, which is hitting those three Republican stronghold states particularly hard, could be a factor in flipping them in the election. The case numbers are setting records, death counts are not dropping as they have been in some other parts of the country, and hospitalizations in these states are leading the nation.
And in an irony of political history, Trump is playing the Hillary Clinton role this time around. Joe Biden isn’t rising in the polls because voters love him; Biden’s numbers are good because the undecideds don’t like Trump. A big part of that has to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is a big and growing issue in the Red Wall states.
As of this week, Texas has over 4,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized and Arizona about 4,400. (Florida only releases the yearly total, which is close to 14,000.) Hospital beds in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, are filling up so fast that Texas Children’s Hospital is starting to treat adult patients, and 97 percent of ICU beds at Texas Medical Center were reportedly in use this week.
In Florida, the average number of new cases per day was 725 in May; it has been over 2,000 per day in June. Texas averaged 884 per day in May and over 2,600 per day this month. Arizona’s daily average of new cases was around 400 in May and over 1,600 in June. Those are increases of 184 percent for Florida, 129 percent for Texas, and a whopping 320 percent for Arizona. These states have, to varying extents, paused their reopenings and begun requiring face masks in more circumstances. With physical distancing and job uncertainty continuing for millions of people, there is in these states an uneasiness about the future. Their citizens can see for themselves the dire consequences of a muddled national policy.
And it’s clear, too, that the president is treating this once-in-a-century public health crisis as anything but that. Case in point: In discussing why the pandemic is still raging across the country—the number of daily new cases crossed 40,000 this week—he said the rise was largely an artifact of increased testing. “When you have all those tests, you have more cases,” Trump said. “We want to do testing. We want to do everything, but they use it to make us look bad.” He also said this week that he was serious, not joking, about having told staffers he wanted testing slowed down.
Voters in these Red Wall states are perceiving that Trump seems finished with the virus while the virus is not finished with them.
There are just over four months left until the election, and we are now in the part of the calendar—the period at the end of the second quarter (June) and beginning of the third quarter (July)—in which, historically, many undecided voters have started making up their minds. To listen to the news media, you might think that undecideds wait until late October and then flip a coin. But mid-summer is when it begins, and this year COVID-19 will be a major factor.
“In Texas, the state is getting hit by three crises at one time—the fallout in the energy sector, the COVID-19 increase, and the racial unrest,” said Richard Murray, University of Houston political scientist. Trump “is not perceived by most Texans as having handled any of them very well. He is definitely losing his suburban voter strength. His strength as a counter-puncher doesn’t help under these circumstances, it actually hurts him.”
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, sees it the same way. The president’s “handling of the economic and pandemic issues for this state have already dropped him by about 5 or 6 points in the polls,” Jillson said. “If he continues not to deal with the COVID-19 issues, it will be a slow bleed for him in Texas.”
A key part of the voter decision-making at this point in the campaign is a search for conflict resolution. What is happening instead this year is that the COVID-19 upswings in the Red Wall states are extending uncertainty. Incumbents always lose support if they are presiding over uncertainty.
In Arizona, Trump is facing trouble from “two opposite ends of the electorate,” according to Thomas Volgy, a University of Arizona political scientist. “Younger minorities are active in the racial issues, and it looks like there will be higher turnout against Trump by those activists.” But over-65s, who have generally tended to be favorable to Trump, “are disproportionately being harmed by the COVID-19 outbreak, and are beginning to question how he has their interests in his mind as he is dealing with this.”
“Right now, the voters are linking the destruction of the economy with the current increases in deaths and cases,” Volgy said. “States can’t function this way and the independent voters are flocking away from Trump. The timing of this couldn’t be worse for him.”
In an interview with the Washington Post, Dana Marie Kennedy, the Arizona director of the AARP, observed that the Trump administration has “failed on so many levels.” She said that her organization has yet to receive a response to four letters outlining concerns to the governor, and a fifth letter is being sent out. “My level of frustration is high,” she said. “We could have stopped this.”
As bad as the COVID-19 news looks right now, it is likely to look far worse very soon. Remember, the death toll tends to lag behind the rate of new cases. Since the number of new cases has surged in the last few weeks, it is close to a certainty that the death rate will soon follow. And it is entirely possible that the rise in cases and deaths in Texas, Arizona, and Florida will continue through July and into the beginning of August.
What could all this mean for Trump’s political support in those three states?
Take the Interstate 4 corridor in Florida, about nineteen counties from Tampa/St. Petersburg to Orlando to Daytona Beach. In 2016, Trump won these counties by about 217,000 votes in 2016. He lost the rest of the state by about 100,000 votes, but his I-4 corridor success was enough to win Florida’s 29 electoral votes. These counties have had 666 COVID-19 deaths so far, as of Friday.
In the week ending on June 24, there were 9,217 new cases identified in this important swath of Florida. In the week ending on June 10, there were 3,413 infection cases. That is a 170 percent increase.
“The next week-to-fourteen-day period of time, I think, is going to be absolutely critical,” Orange County, Florida, mayor Jerry Demings said in an interview last week. “It will become clearer to us [then] what is the next course of action.”
In the Texas Triangle, the combined new case numbers for the Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin/San Antonio metro areas has gone up from 9,613 to 21,092 in that same time period, a 130 percent increase. These three big metro areas have had a combined 1,397 COVID deaths so far this year. “This is crunch time for us,” Austin mayor Steve Adler said on MSNBC on Friday, noting that his city’s hospitals are nearing capacity.
In the Valley of the Sun in southern Arizona, anchored by the big cities of Phoenix and Tucson, there have been 1,077 deaths thus far. Three weeks ago, there were 7,607 new cases filed; there were 17,467 cases filed in the week before June 24. That is a 130 percent increase as well.
“I get angry when I see people refuse to wear a mask or physically distance from others or stay home when they could because it is inconvenient—or as a political statement,” Dr. Bradley A. Dreifuss, an ER doctor in Tucson, wrote in a New York Times op-ed yesterday—sounding very much like New York ER doctors in early April. “If you do not wear a mask and physically distance, you are putting yourself and others in harm’s way. You are putting us in harm’s way. Then you will expect us to risk our lives to save you.”
We cannot know yet how the undecided voters in those places will come down on Election Day. But it is a fact that the Red Wall states are now leaning toward Biden. Trump beat Clinton by about 91,000 votes in Arizona in 2016, and by about 113,000 in Florida. His victory in Texas was much bigger, about 800,000. The states’ polls, however, say that all are in play: According to the RealClear poll averages, Biden is up by 4.0 percent in Arizona and 6.8 percent in Florida. And in Texas, where Trump trounced Clinton by 10 percentage points in 2016, he is up just 2.0 percent over Biden. The conventional wisdom says that if Florida falls to Biden, it is all over given the state’s 29 electoral votes.
Adding to the blame game is that citizens of these three states cannot travel now to New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut without having to be quarantined for fourteen days upon their arrival in these states up north and east. The elderly in Florida and the high numbers of Puerto Ricans there, many of whom have relatives in New York, aren’t going to be happy with that and won’t blame New York governor Andrew Cuomo for the travel restrictions. The blame will likely end up at Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
“Right now, COVID-19 at its best is not good for Trump in Florida, and at its worst, is quite damaging for him,” Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at University of Central Florida in Orlando. “People in Florida were feeling a little better since we reopened, and there was some semblance of normalcy returning.”
“But the change in the [COVID-19] infection rates has traction, and the Interstate 4 Corridor could have a big impact against Trump,” he said. “Orlando is big in the tourism business and so many people are still not back working.
“This part of the state is not fashionable or trendy and is very practical about voting. When the hospitals are full, the infection rates climbing, you are still out of work, and this doesn’t seem to have any ending, then I think it could have some traction [for the November election]. If it was just one of those factors, then maybe people will say, ‘This is the price we pay,’ and would have more acceptance. But it has become a life-and-death issue for voters, and that is never good for an incumbent president.”