While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump point to polls that show them ahead, there is one strong indicator that few seem to have noticed: When it comes to picking the presidential race, Merced County voters are almost always right.
Merced County voters have favored the winning presidential candidate in 14 of the last 16 national elections, dating to 1952. That nearly 88 percent record makes Merced County tied for third place among all U.S. counties considered to be a presidential bellwether, according to data compiled for The Huffington Post.
“Merced County is a good representation of the rest of the country,” said Barbara Levey, the county’s registrar of voters. “Whomever Merced County selects as the top vote-getter (in the presidential race) is in line for the rest of the country.”
The reasons behind Merced County’s bellwether status are unclear. Nearby Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties also have gone 14 for 16 in picking the presidential winner.
Political bellwethers are said to be demographic and attitudinal microcosms of the U.S. as a whole. All three counties tend to be fairly balanced between Democratic and Republican registered voters, with their presidential votes tending to swing with the national trends, according to data from the county registrars, the California Secretary of State’s Office and the Federal Elections Commission.
Of the presidential votes since 1952, only two U.S. counties have chosen the winner every time: Vigo County, Ind., and Valencia County, N.M. Fourteen counties – Ventura being the only one in California – have been on the money all but once in that time.
For Merced County, there have been only two instances when voters favored the losing candidate. In 1956, local voters chose Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson over incumbent President Dwight Eisenhower; and in 1968, the county picked Democrat Hubert Humphrey over California Republican Richard Nixon.
As the country has swung between Democrats and Republicans, so has Merced County. It sided with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, George W. Bush in the 2000s and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, county records show.
How it will shape up on Tuesday remains to be seen. So far, county Democratic registration is outpacing that of Republicans, 45 percent to 30 percent, according to the most recent numbers from the county’s registrar of voters. About 20 percent of voters are registered as “no party preference.”
“It’s sort of a dichotomy in this area,” said Rich Gipson, chairman of the Merced County Democrats. “On the surface, it (Merced County) looks conservative. But, if you look at the election results, we’re blue.”
Merced voters elect officials registered to both major parties. The Merced County Board of Supervisors and the Merced City Council have Democratic majorities, while many mayors across the county identify as Republican.
Brian Raymond, chairman of the county’s Republican Party, calls San Joaquin Valley politicians “valleycrats.”
Gipson, agreed, saying many of the county’s prominent politicians are Democrat but tend to be more moderate, pointing to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Assembly member Adam Gray, D-Merced, as examples.
“The most successful candidate here has learned to appeal to both sides and is pretty middle-of-the-road,” Gipson said.
Though a larger portion of voters are registered as Democrats and have voted that way in the past, the region tends to be more conservative compared to its coastal counterparts, said Jessica Trounstine, a political science professor at UC Merced.
“The Central Valley and Merced County is very evenly divided, and that’s not true in the rest of California,” she said.
Merced’s demographics reflect those that typically lean liberal with its large minority population and low socio-economic status. But the people who actually vote here don’t necessarily reflect the population, she said.
“The local electorate tends to be whiter, older, well-educated and wealthier,” Trounstine said. “Those tend to be conservative traits.”
But neither of the two parties in Merced County appear to have the upper hand in this year’s presidential race with Election Day less than a week away.
The Democrats have struggled with enthusiasm for this year’s ticket of Clinton and Tim Kaine, Gipson said. Instead, the party is focused more on local elections.
“We’re not getting the number of volunteers generally in support of the ticket,” he said.
The Merced County Republican Party hasn’t voted to endorse a presidential candidate and is working on restructuring, Raymond said. The party membership has dwindled and struggled with leadership since former chairwoman Dawn Brown died of cancer in 2012.
Sam Palmer, vice chair for the county Republicans, also heads the Atwater/Merced Tea Party, which has never endorsed candidates. Palmer said during the presidential primaries, tea partyers were split about 50-50 between Sen. Ted Cruz and Trump.
Palmer said many people he’s spoken to who support Trump haven’t been vocal, because they fear being vandalized. “There’s so much anger from the left, people are scared,” he said.
Cameron Cooper, president of the Young Republicans at Merced College, said the small group mostly favors Trump, but many disapprove of his treatment of women. The club focuses on gun control, national security, immigration and crime stances when looking at the candidates.
“I find the idea of supporting Trump morally repugnant, but supporting Clinton is suicide,” Cooper said.
Palmer said he’s found this election cycle refreshing. “Trump is rattling everybody’s cage,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly healthy for the country as a whole.”
Gipson, on the other hand, said he’ll be glad when it’s over.
“Like all of America, I’m appalled at the overall tone of the election,” Gipson said. “There will be a need for a lot of healing to be done once the campaign is finished.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477