For the past few weeks, at least, both California and Oregon have become red states. But that’s not enough for President Trump to focus on them.
After all, it’s not the right kind of red. Intense heat and dry conditions have allowed massive wildfires to erupt in both states, blanketing huge areas with smoke and prompting the evacuations of tens of thousands of residents. In the San Francisco Bay area earlier this week, the skies were an orange-red even in the middle of the day, leading to surreal images of streetlights illuminating apocalyptic scenes in the middle of a California morning.
Trump, though, hasn’t said much about the fires. On Aug. 20, he resuscitated his bizarre assertions about Californians needing to rake out tens of thousands of acres of woodlands — a suggestion that he clearly sees as more feasible than, say, addressing the warming climate that’s a central factor in the conflagrations.
Since the beginning of August, Trump has mentioned California 82 times in speeches and tweets, according to data provided to The Washington Post by Factba.se. By comparison, he’s mentioned the 11 states which were closest in the 2016 presidential election 966 times.
Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania all earned more mentions than California over that period; Wisconsin earned a nearly equal amount.
Since his inauguration, those swing states have — not entirely surprisingly — been among the most-mentioned by Trump. He’s actually mentioned Michigan more times as president than he has California.
California is actually a weird exception in one way. Over the past two years, Trump’s made more mentions of swing states and states he lost badly in 2016 than other states. So far this year, for example, he has mentioned both heavily Democratic states and swing states more than 2,000 times. He has mentioned all other states 2,400 times.
Each year, just under a third of his mentions of states (meaning, excluding cities within those states, such as Portland) have been of swing states. In the past two years, heavily Democratic states have been mentioned nearly as often.
Why? This year can provide some insight.
The most Trump mentioned states in 2017 was in September, when hurricanes hit the heavily red Gulf Coast. In 2018, the most mentions came in October and November, as Trump promoted candidates in the midterm elections both remotely and (largely) in red states.
This year, the two months in which Trump was most likely to mention states were March and August. In March, he was talking a lot about areas heavily hit by the coronavirus pandemic, like New York — so that he could tout how well his administration was doing in addressing the outbreak. His attention gradually shifted to swing states, in part because of the pandemic (“liberate Michigan”; waving away surges in infections in Arizona and Florida). But it was mostly about the coming election.
If we weight each month’s mentions by the percentage each category of state occupies of the total mentions, that shift is more obvious. Notice how heavy Trump’s mentions were of red states in late 2018 with the midterms looming. Now it’s increasingly those swing states.
Savvy readers will be curious about the distribution of each category. Good question! Here’s how many states fit into each category and how many mentions each category has gotten. (The cut off for strong/not was a 15-point margin in 2016 in the state.)
Trump has made repeatedly clear that he sees his base of support as his political priority. He has also made clear that crises in states that aren’t politically useful — meaning that neither the crisis nor the state’s voters are useful — aren’t things he spends a lot of time focused on. In the case of California, the wildfires offer only an indirect way to attack the state’s liberal politics and it’s not a place he’s going to win in November.
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