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If You Want To Understand What’s Roiling The 2016 Election, Go To Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY — As airline tickets proliferate in the pockets of reporters crisscrossing the country ahead of Super Tuesday, perhaps no voting state is so underrated as Oklahoma. Situated on one of the flatter, windier portions of that hunk of continental crust we call America, Oklahoma is used to being unappreciated — “Grapes of Wrath” did its reputation no favors — but thanks to a populist streak, the state might just be the locus of Bernie Sanders’s last statistical stand in the Democratic presidential primary. What’s more, that cowboy individualism could take us one step closer to deciphering the desires of the 2016 Republican electorate, Donald Trump’s supporters’ in particular.

The Oklahoma stakes on the Democratic side of the race are fairly straightforward. After his nearly 50 percentage point loss in South Carolina on Saturday, Sanders’s chances for the nomination are dimming, and the Vermont senator is looking to scoop up any delegates he can. His prospects in most Super Tuesday states are looking bleak. But over the past month or so, Sanders has eaten into Hillary Clinton’s lead in Oklahoma — chomped through it, actually. Sanders went from being down 25 points in mid-January to bringing the race to within 2 points by mid-February in one poll. He recently said flat-out he thinks he’ll win the state.

Why the surge?

Clinton has a solid history in Oklahoma. She won the state handily in the 2008 primary, but as we all know by now, the first rule of the 2016 election season is that there are no rules. It might be the eau de anti-establishment ambrosia that Sanders has doused himself in, but he appears to be appealing to the overwhelmingly white, middle to lower-middle class Democratic voters in Oklahoma in ways that he hasn’t been able to with minorities in other parts of the South (see: South Carolina). Eighty-two percent of Oklahoma’s 2008 Democratic primary voters were white and half had yearly household incomes between $30,000 and $75,000.

In some ways, according to Keith Gaddie, chair of the University of Oklahoma’s department of political science, this Sanders support is a return to the state’s historic political roots. “Oklahoma is where your Southern agrarian populism and Nebraska prairie populism collided in America,” he said of the state forged by homesteaders in the late 19th century. Gaddie noted that for the first couple of decades after statehood in the early 20th century, “there was a really strong socialist political strength; we at one point had five socialists in the state legislature.”

Oklahoma’s present-day polling still bears this out. “I think there is still a strong populism in the Oklahoma electorate, both Republican and Democrat,” said Bill Shapard, who runs SoonerPoll, one of the state’s independent public opinion polling firms. “That’s why you’re seeing Trump doing well, because he’s the most populist candidate of the bunch, and I think Bernie Sanders is much more the populist candidate on the Democrat side.”

The notion that Trump and Sanders are pulling different ends of the same troubled American heartstring is not new, but over the disparate strains of Muse tunes and “Mustang Sally” at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City on Sunday, Paul and Sherelle Bowermann were living proof of this theory. They, along with over 4,000 other Oklahomans, had come to hear Sanders speak at an event that included Native American dancing and the obligatory rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie was from Oklahoma, after all). The Bowermanns were supporting the Vermont senator, but “believe it or not, our second choice is Trump,” said Sherelle, 73. In a general election, given the choice between the Manhattan businessman and Clinton, they would vote for Trump. Paul, 68, who characterized his political outlook as “eclectic,” liked that Sanders seemed “more compassionate to people who are down and out” and that Trump seemed to be “protesting the powers that be, the billionaires that run the country.”

There are numbers to back up this populist enthusiasm, a messy purple watercolor of reds and blues bleeding together rather than a neat, paint-by-numbers rendering of party-line adherence. According to Pam Slater of the Oklahoma State Election Board, the state has seen a spike in both new voter registrations and requests to change party affiliation. From Jan. 1 through Feb. 26, the state has registered 13,340 Democrats and 20,929 Republicans. During the same time period, the office saw just over 5,000 Democrats apply to change their registration to Republican, and nearly 1,500 switch from being registered Independents to the GOP.1 Shapard called the movement a “micro-trend,” likely of voters who see the Trump appeal or, at the very least, want in on the action of this year’s Republican race.

This could be a sign of things to come, and Tuesday, when 12 states scrum for delegates, might very well be when the faint patterns of the race are finally drawn in Sharpie rather than in pencil. Oklahoma’s middle-class, white Democrats changing party affiliation to vote for Trump could foreshadow what voters of comparable demographics in states like Michigan and Ohio might do.

Oklahoma could also prove to be another relevant data point in ending the myth of the evangelical vote as monolith. Shapard calls South Carolina a bellwether for Oklahoma — “We’re much more Western than they are, but our electorate still mirrors theirs; Republicanism is high, evangelicals are high” — and in South Carolina, Trump won 34 percent of the evangelical vote. It makes sense to expect about the same in Oklahoma, especially given the flaws of Ted Cruz’s operation, which once upon a time in the alternate reality of six months or so ago seemed to be the perfect vehicle for the religious conservative vote. Cruz has been tainted by his campaign’s unsavory public reputation, according to Shapard, including accusations that the operation spread rumors of Ben Carson dropping out of the race the night of the Iowa caucuses. It’s not a look that plays well with many evangelical voters. “Cruz may have won the battle in the Iowa caucus, but it ended up costing him the war,” Shapard said.

Gaddie, of the University of Oklahoma, characterized evangelical voters as being split into a couple of groups, those who “vote culture war” — on issues of school prayer, abortion and the like — and those “who think of themselves as Christian nationalists.” Those latter voters, he said, “think the United States was established as a Christian nation, they think that separation of church and state is overblown and they want to see a candidate who’s about American nationalism, restoring American pride. That’s what Trump taps into.”

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  1. Nearly 1,300 switched from Republican to Democratic, and just under 900 moved from Independent to Democratic.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.