DES MOINES, Iowa — More than 400 miles from her hometown of Ponca City, a former Oklahoma educator who spent 30 years teaching high school students about the Iowa caucuses, was witnessing the political event for the first time.
Holding her University of Oklahoma handbag, former social studies teacher Mert Martens stood in the crowd to watch Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar address issues surrounding middle America — the place Martens called home.
“The Midwest is not flyover country to me,” said Klobuchar to the crowd. “The heart of America is so much bigger than the heart of the guy in the White House.”
Martens said she remembers a time, not too long ago, when Oklahoma was a progressive state.
“I keep thinking we will get back to it. I hope we do,” said Martens.
In the 2016 election, every county in Oklahoma voted for President Donald Trump, while the only other state to vote entirely red was West Virginia.
But a Morning Consult survey showed Trump’s approval rating has decreased 26 points in Oklahoma since his inauguration. Despite this drop, a December poll showed the president still is popular in the state, maintaining a 52% approval rating.
“I keep listening to the polls, and I don't know why, because we learned in 2016 not to listen to the polls,” said Martens when asked if there is a Democratic candidate who has the support to beat Trump in Oklahoma. “You know, they say Biden does, but I'm not sure that he can. I'm not sure that Elizabeth Warren can. I’m not really sure who can.”
With the Oklahoma primary election one month away, Democratic candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have visited the state to speak to potential voters.
“There are two reasons why. One is that there's a thing called the money primary, and Oklahoma has always been a really good donor state for the Democratic Party,” said University of Oklahoma professor Keith Gaddie, who has a doctorate in political science. “But the second thing is even though Oklahoma is not a big state, it's not the smallest state out there, and it comes sufficiently early that you can pick up delegates there.”
But after the primary election, Gaddie said the wave of Democratic candidates campaigning throughout the state will end.
“We won't see anybody during the general election, because Oklahoma has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1948 — with the exception of 1964, when we went for LBJ,” said Gaddie.
But even those in Oklahoma, like former-Republican voter Allison Thompson, who have thrown their support behind Democratic candidates say it is unlikely enough voters in the state will vote against Trump in November.
Following in the footsteps of her parents, Thompson said she had been a registered Republican since she was old enough to vote. But the day after Trump was elected in 2016, she made the move to the Democratic Party.
“I didn't have an issue being a Republican. I liked a lot of the things they had to say. But when Donald Trump got elected, I could not be a part of that party anymore,” said Thompson, who has thrown her support behind Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg.
While Thompson said there are other voters who feel the same way, Oklahomans have “not gotten to where we need to be at in this state.”
For Trump to lose Oklahoma, Gaddie said it would require a scandal larger than impeachment to break, the economy to sink and a huge foreign policy failure to occur.
“It would have to be the perfect storm of horrible executive decisions and embarrassing circumstances,” said Gaddie.
Gaylord News is a reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.