Trump Is Redrawing the Election Map, to Republicans' Peril

825_Trump Mississippi
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 24. Trump visited the state despite leading the race there by double digits. Carlo Allegri/REUTERS

It wasn't too long ago that the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was boasting he could make states that traditionally vote Democratic, like California and New York, competitive in the 2016 presidential election. "We're going to play heavy, as an example, in California," Trump told a crowd in Billings, Montana, on May 26. "Now no other Republican—they wouldn't even go to dinner in California. They wouldn't do it."

Three months later, it's not these so-called blue states where Trump is "playing heavy"—it's rock-ribbed Republican states. The real estate tycoon raised eyebrows this week by making stops in Mississippi and Texas, both of which Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 nominee, won by double digits that year. And new polling out of two other GOP-leaning states, Missouri and South Carolina, show Democrat Hillary Clinton unexpectedly within striking distance in the presidential contest.

While it's still difficult to see Clinton winning in any of those places—as Republican consultant David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor, says of South Carolina, "This is a state that's so red it's sunburned"—even being competitive there, as a Democrat, is startling. And it could force Trump and the Republicans to divert money and resources to defend their strongholds, rather than spending money in places long considered to be battlegrounds, like Virginia and Colorado. Recent polls in those two states show they may be slipping out of reach for Trump, absent a dramatic reversal.

Demographic trends are part of the story—particularly in Virginia, Colorado and Georgia, where Hispanic populations have surged in recent years. But the shift in the presidential map also is a reflection specifically on Trump, election experts say. "I think the competitive polls we're seeing out of South Carolina and Georgia, Missouri, are indicative of how poorly he's doing across the country," says Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, which analyzes election politics. "When you're losing by 7, 8 points or more nationally, that's going to have the potential to jeopardize some traditionally Republican states."

That could include South Carolina: Two August polls, both commissioned by the state's Democratic Party, have shown a surprisingly tight race there. The latest, conducted by the Feldman Group and released Tuesday night, shows Trump and Clinton tied, with 39 percent of the vote each. Republicans question the polls' samples and methodology, but anything less than a double-digit deficit in South Carolina has to be encouraging for Democrats, who haven't won the state in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter did so in 1976.

A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, meanwhile, shows Trump leading by just 1 percentage point in Missouri. In a statement, Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray noted that the presidential contest was close in the state "the last time there was a vacancy in the Oval Office. In that respect, this year looks more like 2008 than 2012 when Romney won the state by 10 points."

Two polls conducted this summer also show Clinton trailing Trump by single digits in Texas (a third shows him with an 11-point lead). And a raft of polls conducted over the last month in Georgia show a competitive race there as well—some have Trump with a single-digit lead; others even have Clinton up by a few points. The only recent public poll in Mississippi, however, shows the Republican leading by 15 points there, which makes it seem odd that the campaign decided to hold a rally in the state's capital city on Wednesday evening.

Nathan Shrader, assistant professor of political science at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, says a general election visit to the state by a presidential candidate is rare, and that's ginned up plenty of local excitement about the rally. But Shrader called the visit "kind of perplexing," particularly after the campaign canceled two rallies this week in the swing states of Colorado and Nevada. "I think you have something happening here where their campaign is becoming increasingly worried that if things keep going the way they've been going, they may get wiped out," says Shrader. So it wants to at least shore up the base, he hypothesizes. Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef, however, says he doesn't think it hurts for Trump to hold a rally in Mississippi while he also visits the state for a fundraiser. It not only motivates local Republicans to engage in the election at home but also may lead them to do canvassing and other volunteer work in nearby states like Florida, which are more competitive. "It sort of fires up the troops," Nosef says.

The Trump campaign did not reply directly to a request for comment, but it did put out a statement Tuesday elaborating on the candidate's schedule this week. "Mr. Trump is in Texas for two large fundraisers and then he will be taping an important town hall on border security and crimes committed by illegal aliens," said Jason Miller, the Trump campaign's senior communications adviser. "Following the second fundraiser, Mr. Trump will be speaking at a rally in Austin to draw additional national attention to his call for border security as well as the need for a Special Prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton's bought and paid for State Department." The statement emphasized that Trump is also spending time in the battlegrounds of Florida, Nevada and Iowa this week. It did not mention his events in Mississippi.

It's not unusual for presidential candidates to take time off from the campaign trail to conduct fundraising in states that aren't poised to be competitive in the fall. Clinton has been in California this week raising money at a number of high-dollar events. But Mississippi is not an obvious stop on the fundraising circuit—it simply doesn't have the same trove of wealthy donors as places like New York, Los Angeles or Dallas. It's also unusual to invest staff time and money to put on major public events in less competitive states.

But as it has on so many other fronts, this presidential campaign is defying standard practices for allocating resources. The Clinton campaign is pursuing a 50-state strategy, aiming to have offices in every state. (It now has 42 up and running, with the other eight on the verge of opening, a Clinton aide tells Newsweek.) They won't be staffed with anywhere near as many people as the campaign's operations in pivotal swing states like Ohio and Florida—some are even being run, in part, by volunteers. And the campaign does not necessarily expect to win states like Utah or Georgia in 2016, despite opening offices there. But Clinton's strategists do believe it can help with other races that Democrats are contesting in each state, while also boosting the party in the future. Democrats' chance of turning red states blue "is zero unless you make these kinds of investments," the aide explains.

Trump, meanwhile, has taken a more scattershot approach to the political map—stopping off this summer in heavily Democratic states like Connecticut and Republican strongholds like Mississippi. And that's a luxury that the campaign, behind in the polls and woefully lacking in critical campaign infrastructure, cannot afford, says Gonzalez. "It would be one thing if Donald Trump had hundreds of paid staff and extra money to throw at Democratic states that he's probably not going to win," says Gonzalez. But right now, he's relying on the Republican National Committee to conduct much of his grassroots get-out-the-vote activities. And Gonzalez says the GOP would like to see Trump stay laser-focused on a handful of swing states, like Ohio, that he absolutely needs to win in November. "I know that the way Trump is running his campaign is frustrating even Republicans."