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Trump-Clinton battle could upend electoral map

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.(REUTERS)

A presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could fundamentally shift the country's political landscape, transforming one-time sleepy party strongholds into swing states and leaving some perennial political battlegrounds untouched by the candidates.

Trump's poor standing with Hispanic voters means rock-ribbed Republican states with emerging minority populations could become competitive for Democrats. At the same time, Clinton remains unpopular among blue-collar voters in the Northeast and Midwest, which could turn traditionally Democratic states there into battlegrounds.

"We are already making preparations for the number of swing states to double," said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University's Political Research Center. "This is a unique election in many ways, especially because of how the electoral map could change."

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Polls have shown Trump tied with Clinton in two solid GOP states with growing Hispanic populations — Arizona and Georgia. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won Georgia by eight percentage points and Arizona by nine percentage points, and this election would be the first time either state could see significant investments from the campaigns.

Arizona has voted for a Democrat for president only once since 1948. But a Rocky Mountain Poll taken in April showed Clinton with a seven-percentage point lead in Arizona. Latinos comprise 21.5 percent of the state's eligible voter population, according to a tally from the Pew Research Center.

"I think Trump has work to do in Arizona," said Republican consultant Nathan Sproul, who is based in Arizona. "It isn't a slam dunk for him."

Then there is Georgia, which is undergoing a demographic shift expected to boost Democrats in the future. A large number of young people are moving to the greater Atlanta area, and the state's Hispanic and African-American populations are growing. Polls show Trump is more unpopular among these demographics than other Republicans, which could give Democrats a new opportunity in Georgia.

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Meanwhile, the Trump campaign sees new opportunities in Democratic strongholds, particularly in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. His aides cite Trump's more liberal positions on social issues, such as gay marriage, plus his criticism of trade agreements that put him to the left of Clinton, as the reason he could have a shot in these otherwise blue states.

The newest and biggest prize of the cycle might be Pennsylvania. The Clintons have never lost a primary or general election contest there, but the demographics of the state are shifting. The Philadelphia region has increasingly voted for Democrats, but nearly everywhere else in Pennsylvania has trended toward Republicans. While the state has not picked a Republican for president since 1992, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton leading Trump by just one point, 43 percent to 42 percent.

"Pennsylvania has everything in this contest," said Paleologos of Suffolk, which partners with the Globe on polling. "It has voted Democratic in the past, but this time this is where Clinton is most vulnerable among white working class voters and where Trump has a message aimed right at them."

To be sure, the path to the White House will include such battleground states from recent elections as Florida and Ohio. Many of the same states that President Obama and Romney fought over in 2012 will be in the spotlight again, such as Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Iowa.

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If Clinton wins every state Democrats have won in the past six presidential elections, plus Florida, she will become president. Conversely, if Trump wins Florida and Ohio, his path to victory — and 270 electoral votes — becomes much easier.

Many of these traditional swing states rank among the Electoral College's top prizes thanks to their large populations. But Trump's campaign chairman and chief strategist Paul Manafort recently told CNN that the campaign would contest smaller states in New England, calling New Hampshire a target and Maine and Connecticut possibilities.

General election polling has been scarce in Connecticut, but Manafort has said he believes Trump's big primary win there signals he could be competitive in the Nutmeg State, which has not voted for a Republican for president since 1988. Additionally, Trump's aides said they plan to hire campaign staff in Maine, a state that has not voted for a Republican for president since 1988.

University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer said Trump could take advantage of the way Maine awards some of its electoral votes by congressional districts. Maine's Second Congressional District, which includes the northern portion of the state, is currently represented by a Republican.

"His message on trade and speaking to the white working class plays very well in that district," said Brewer. "It is impossible for him to win the other district in the south, which has become more liberal, but it is not impossible for him to even take the whole state, but less likely."

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New Hampshire has traditionally been a swing state, but recent polls there show diverging pictures of the general election. A University of New Hampshire poll this month showed Clinton with a double-digit lead — which means the state may not live up to its reputation as a perennial campaign battleground.

But a WBUR poll out this week showed the New Hampshire race as a statistical tie between Clinton and Trump.

Some of these surveys' discrepancies can be chalked up to the difficulties of polling voters this early in an election, before many independent voters have started paying attention to the campaign.

What's more, many of the race's dynamics are still shifting. For example, this week's polls show many Republicans are beginning to back Trump; meanwhile the Democratic field is still divided between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Still, with months to go in the campaign, experts warn that the battleground states could shift even more — or revert to the usual collection of six to eight states where candidates will spend most of their time.

"This [campaign] is going to be noisy in the polls — nationally and in the states — until after the conventions," said University of Georgia political science professor Josh Putnam.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.boston
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