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Could Hillary win Arkansas? 

click to enlarge Hillary Clinton image
  • Brian Chilson

Arkansas Democrats, battered and bruised from the Obama era, are giddy at the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy in 2016, which they see as a key component of the party's political turnaround in the state. In the 2014 cycle, party elites are increasingly hopeful that direct pressure can be applied to the bleeding that began in 2008, both through Mike Ross maintaining the governorship and through narrowly recovering control of the state House. It is 2016, however, that state Democrats are focused on as the point at which the party can emerge from the Republicans' use of President Obama as key means to win votes. In 2016, the party hopes to move decisively back in the direction of its historic majority status, even as it recognizes that Arkansas will remain a competitive two-party state.

Monday's private White House lunch between the president and former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton only heightens hopes that she is preparing to take advantage of a presumptive position for her party's nomination. Although clearly not a done deal, the structure is being built for Clinton to "hit play" and launch a second presidential candidacy. The provincial question is whether her presence at the top of the ballot would have the impact Arkansas Democrats assume.

There are several key reasons Arkansas Democrats are excited about the possibility of a Clinton candidacy. First, although it took her a while to get there, Clinton passes the "she's one of us" test that Arkansas politicians know is the first step towards electoral success here. While Clinton has spent relatively little time in Arkansas since her mother moved from Little Rock, her high profile appearances in recent months for the dedications of the city's airport and new children's library reassert her connections to the state's capital city. She also has proven vote-getting ability in the state based on the 70 percent she received in the 2008 primary. As a result of her ties to Arkansas and to her still-popular husband, Arkansas Democrats would be comfortable appearing with and speaking the name of Hillary Clinton in the state that has a history of personal relationships trumping party as a mover of votes.

Clinton also would contest Arkansas in a manner that has not taken place since Al Gore's 2000 campaign. The large margins of defeat in the last three presidential elections are partly due to the absence of a legitimate campaign operation in the state. It is unimaginable that Hillary (and Bill) Clinton would cede the state entirely in the general election even if it were ultimately an uphill climb.

These dynamics are certainly advantageous to the party. Indeed, in certain parts of Arkansas, Clinton would expand the electorate, aiding statewide Democratic candidates and perhaps local House and Senate races. What is more dubious is whether a Clinton candidacy is the game-changer that Arkansas Democrats now believe it to be.

There is much data suggesting that the Arkansas electorate has changed permanently in recent years in a way that makes the state an incredible challenge for any national Democrat, even a candidate with such deep ties to the state. The electorate shifted in its partisan leanings towards the GOP, with "independents" now increasingly "leaning" Republican in polling. Similarly, the recent dramatic shift of rural white voters in Arkansas counties that had traditionally been up for grabs seems more cemented than in the past, with those voters more thoroughly polarized and less susceptible to personal appeals.

And despite the recent appearances, the Clintons' ties to the state are weakening simply because of time — no Arkansan under age 39 was part of the 1992 electorate that sent Bill Clinton to the White House, and those who led the Clinton Arkansas operation, while still dedicated, are an aging crew.

Make no mistake, a Clinton at the top of the ticket rather than an Obama represents a major psychological difference for the state's Democrats. However, Arkansas Democrats are a bit too bullish about the positive impact of a Clinton campaign on Arkansas political dynamics. For a real turnaround in its fortunes to take place, the party needs much more than a change in the national face of the party. It needs better candidates throughout the state, modernized campaign operations and a sharper message to communicate with those voters still willing to listen.

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