Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

Will the scheduled appearances of President Donald Trump in Tupelo and the president’s son Don in Purvis help galvanize Trump’s not inconsequential base in Mississippi to support Republican gubernatorial nominee Tate Reeves against Democrat Jim Hood?

That, despite national approval ratings for Trump that are in the low 40s range and have remained so for many months?

In the 2016 presidential election, Trump took 57.86 percent of Mississippi’s votes against Democrat Hillary Clinton with 40.06 percent – a margin almost 12 percent better than Trump got nationally.

In the 2018 Mississippi U.S. Senate special election, Trump stumped for then-interim Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith against Democratic nominee Mike Espy. Despite a campaign marred by some gaffes, Trump’s visits here were cited as a major factor in Hyde-Smith’s 54 percent to 46 percent win over Espy. Espy was no sacrificial lamb Democrat. He ran a serious race with serious money.

Espy raised almost $7 million in that losing campaign, one in which he outraised and outspent Hyde-Smith.

The close bond between outgoing two-term Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and Trump has been a factor as Bryant’s role as the titular head of the Mississippi GOP helped to clear the tracks for the “Trump Train” in Mississippi. Throw in strong Republican majorities in both the Mississippi House and Senate along with the GOP holding seven of eight statewide offices and it’s hard to imagine why Mississippi is experiencing what many believe is the state’s most competitive governor’s race since Republican Haley Barbour successfully challenged Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s bid for a second term in 2003.

Barbour won that race with 52.6 percent of the vote to Musgrove’s 45.8 percent. Three minor party candidates split the remaining 1.6 percent of the vote.

In the 2007 race, Barbour’s leadership after Hurricane Katrina made him virtually unbeatable and he upped his victory percentage by almost six percent against Democratic trial lawyer John Arthur Eaves Jr. Bryant’s 2011 and 2015 gubernatorial general elections wins were decisive.

But the 2019 campaign between Reeves and Hood – two candidates who have each successfully faced statewide voters the same number of times in the same 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2015 statewide elections – is different.

Hood and Reeves both have established constituencies. Both have a stable base of donors. Both have weathered tough, contested elections before. Campaign money won’t be an issue for either of them and neither of them are shy about bare-knuckle politics.

So how much difference, if any, does the Trump visits make for the Reeves-Hood showdown?

Some fascinating research by elections analyst Nathaniel Rakish examines data which measures the “partisan lean” in states against Trump’s net popularity. In that comparison, Mississippi had a plus 15-point Republican partisan lean against a net Trump popularity of plus 19 points – for a plus 4 total.

Essentially. Rakish identified states where Trump was “more popular than he should be” given the partisan lean. On that list, Mississippi at plus 4 (No.2), Louisiana at plus 3 (No. 3) and Alabama at 0 (No. 6) were defined this way: “The fact that Trump’s net approval rating so closely matches partisanship in these states may be because they are very inelastic, meaning they are home to few swing voters. Specifically, in these states, evangelical whites are likely to be staunchly Republican, and black voters are likely to be loyal Democrats. So it wouldn’t be surprising if all the Republicans simply approve of Trump and all the Democrats disapprove, with few independents left to move the needle.”

The fact that most observers, Republican and Democrat, see the Hood-Reeves race as extremely tight despite Reeves’ obvious advantages makes Rakich’s theory that Trump is perhaps four percent more popular than he “ought to be” based on our state’s current GOP  partisan lean to say the least a tantalizing suggestion for the Reeves camp.

Some Hood supporters believe that a Trump visit could hurt Reeves as much as help him. Both camps have about two weeks before the voters answer all those questions.