Mississippi has fewer persuadable voters per capita than any other state. Can Mike Espy persuade the unpersuadable to win the Senate race?

Mississippi is nicknamed the hospitality state, but when it comes to voting, it is the state of entrenchment.

Mississippi is the most inelastic state in the nation when it comes to voting, according to a study by the FiveThirtyEight political blog. In simpler terms, the hospitality state has fewer persuadable voters per capita than any state in the nation. Only the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., a Democratic stronghold, has fewer persuadable voters, based on the updated study.

The lack of persuadable voters highlights the obstacles faced in Mississippi by Democratic candidates and Mike Espy, specifically, in his race against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. In a sense, all the momentum appears to be on Espy’s side. He has raised far more money than Hyde-Smith this year and is dominating the television airwaves across the state.

Yet the Cook Political Report, a national political website that forecasts elections, ranks the Mississippi Senate race in the “solid Republican” category. The aforementioned FiveThirtyEight gives Hyde-Smith a 91% chance of winning.

The national forecasters give Democratic Senate candidates in Kansas, Montana and Alaska better odds of winning than they give Espy. What gives? Are those states more Democratic than Mississippi? In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won Mississippi by 18%, compared to more than 20% in Montana and Kansas and by almost 15% in Alaska.

The issue, according to FiveThirtyEight, is not that Mississippi is more Republican than those states, but that it has fewer voters willing to cross party lines. The blog says elastic voters are more likely to be swayed by political events — the economy, a scandal, a pandemic.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend here is how inelastic the country is as a whole. The study describes Mississippi and many other Southern states as having “ lots of white evangelical Protestants and white voters with conservative views on racial issues who rarely if ever vote for Democratic candidates.” The study identifies Kansas, Montana and Alaska as very white states, but “not as evangelical or racially conservative.”

Another issue that might make Mississippi a little different than states like Kansas is that Mississippi also has a high number of Democrats who also are difficult to persuade to cross party lines. Generally speaking, the vast majority of those unpersuadable Democrats are Black voters.

While not giving some of the Southern Democratic Senate candidates as much of a chance as it gives the Democrats in Kansas, Montana and Alaska, FiveThirtyEight does say the high percentage of Black voters in those Southern states gives Democrats a chance in an election cycle where it appears all the momentum is on the side of the Democrats.

A key caveat for Espy, though, is that there are more persuadable Republicans than Democrats in Mississippi. To win in November, Espy has to entice people to the polls who do not normally vote.

Many believe these are progressives who have not been enthused with the generally conservative Democrats who have run for statewide office in Mississippi. Espy, who has largely centered his 2020 campaign on race and social justice, has tried to attract those voters by embracing the national Democratic ticket to an extent that most Mississippi Democratic statewide candidates have not in past election years.

In addition, Espy must convince a small percentage of those Mississippi Republican voters to come over to his camp. Espy is trying to do that with recent ads touting the need to change the state’s trajectory to ensure young people do not leave the state, and by highlighting his willingness to work across party lines, like he did in the 1980s and 90s with Republicans like Sen. Thad Cochran and President Ronald Reagan.

To win, Espy must do both of those things: inspire new, mostly younger progressives and convince some of those traditionally unpersuadable Republicans.

Espy maintains that he will win if Black voters in the Nov. 3 election make up 35.5% of the total vote, and that if he increases his share of the white vote from the 18% he garnered in his 2018 Senate special election against Hyde-Smith to 22%. Based on early absentee voting numbers, there is a strong likelihood that the African American turnout will be higher than the 32.5% the Espy campaign says he earned in the 2018 special election.

If that’s the case, that might leave Espy just needing to persuade those unpersuadable Mississippi voters to win. It’s a tall task, but time will tell if it’s possible.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.