If Arizona flips from red to blue this year — and according to most polls, that appears highly possible — it would be a historical outlier: The state has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1952, except one.
But it probably wouldn’t be a blip.
Arizona has been trending blue for years, driven by its increasingly ethnically diverse electorate and growing Democratic strength among suburban voters.
“The state’s clearly in motion,” said Paul Maslin, a veteran Democratic pollster. A victory there for Joe Biden, Maslin added, “would be a furthering of those trends: the Latino vote locking in for Democrats, but also a suburban vote — around Phoenix and Tucson — moving Democratic.”
When Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 3.5 percentage points in Arizona in 2016, he captured only 48% of the vote — less than any winning candidate in the state since Bill Clinton squeaked by with a rare Democratic victory in 1996.
Today, with most Arizona voters telling pollsters that they disapprove of how Trump has handled the coronavirus pandemic, surveys consistently show Biden with the advantage.
And in the race for the Senate seat once held by John McCain, the Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly — a retired NASA astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — leads the Republican incumbent, Sen. Martha McSally, among likely voters by anywhere from 1 percentage point, in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, to 8 points, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll out this week.
If Kelly wins the Senate election, Biden prevails in Arizona, and there is no change in the state’s House delegation — which Democrats now narrowly control — Arizona will be more solidly blue than at any point since the civil rights movement.
When the pandemic struck and the country’s economy hit the rocks, Trump found his most powerful argument for reelection thrown into jeopardy. That was particularly true in Arizona, where business had been booming. Corporations across industries — including tech, insurance and defense contracting — had opened new operations in the state in recent years, bringing high-paying jobs by the tens of thousands.
Partly as a result, Phoenix and its surrounding county, Maricopa, are now the fastest-growing city and county in the country, according to census data. On average, more than 250 people move to the Phoenix area each day.
A few years ago, a flood of good jobs into the suburbs around Phoenix might have been great news for Republicans, bringing an influx of middle-class and predominantly white voters to a county that accounts for 3 of every 5 votes cast in Arizona.
But particularly under Trump, the suburban political calculus has changed. Voters in the suburbs are now far less likely to support him or members of his party than they were just five years ago.
“It used to be that in Maricopa County, if you put an ‘R’ in front of your name, you’d win,” said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican strategist based in Phoenix. Now, he added, “that is not the case.”
In the Times/Siena poll, Biden trounced Trump by 58% to 33% among likely voters in Phoenix. But he was also running even with the president in the rest of Maricopa County, with each candidate receiving 45% support.
Republicans are increasingly forced to stake their political fortunes on the rest of the state — outside Maricopa as well as Pima County, home to the liberal bastion Tucson — where Republicans tend to broadly outnumber Democrats.
If McSally pulls off a victory in the Senate race, it will be thanks to those voters. Among voters outside Pima and Maricopa counties, she enjoyed 50% support compared with Kelly’s 41%, according to the Times/Siena poll.
But in a sign of trouble for the president, he did not lead even among these voters. Biden was at 45%, while Trump had 42%.
Thanks to a large number of retirement communities, the state’s voters skew slightly older than the rest of the country. Census projections suggest that 20 years from now, about 1 in 5 Americans will be at least 65, up from about 1 in 8 at the turn of the millennium. Voters ages 45-64 are slightly underrepresented in Arizona’s population, compared with the country at large.
Once again, just a few years ago, this might have all appeared to be good news for Republicans, who have historically drawn strong support from seniors. In 2016, Trump won voters 65 and older in Arizona by 13 points, according to exit polls. But among Arizonans, as with the nation at large, his support has weakened badly among these voters.
According to the Times/Siena poll, Biden was leading by 51% to 40% among likely voters in Arizona 65 and older.
The Pew Research Center has predicted that this year, for the first time, Hispanic voters will be the largest racial and ethnic minority group in the U.S. electorate, narrowly outnumbering Black voters. In Arizona, where the Black population is relatively small, the fast-rising Hispanic share of the electorate has been crucial to Democrats’ rising strength — though the party has also made inroads with white voters.
Nearly one-third of the Arizona population is Hispanic, up from about one-quarter 20 years ago. And while their vote share usually lags behind their proportion of the overall population, Latinos accounted for roughly 1 in 5 Arizona voters in 2016, according to various analyses.
Exit polls showed Hillary Clinton winning Latino voters in Arizona by about 2-1 in 2016. And in the midterm elections two years ago, Latinos were even more essential to the victory by Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, in a Senate race, supporting her over McSally by 70% to 30%, according to exit polls. (McSally was later appointed to the state’s other Senate seat.)
So far, Biden does not enjoy quite so commanding a lead among Latinos, according to polls. Some have him equaling Hillary Clinton’s margins — but analysts say he has room to grow.
Stephanie Valencia, founder of the political strategy firm EquisLabs, said that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the Democratic primary race had done much to energize voter participation among Hispanic voters, particularly younger women. But Biden’s campaign, she said, has yet to engender the same level of enthusiasm.
Recent EquisLabs polling of Hispanic voters in Arizona showed his support to be particularly weak among Hispanic men younger than 50, who were almost as likely to back Trump as to support Biden.
“The gender divide, particularly in the Latino community, has been especially vast,” Valencia said. “That presents a longer-term potential challenge for Democrats.”
She added, “There’s a fairly large chunk of the electorate that is actually kind of in the middle here and actually needs to be persuaded.”
Voting by mail?
Arizona has been a pioneer in voting by mail, a highly popular practice in the state for decades. In the midterms two years ago, 78% of votes were cast by mail. During the August primaries, with the coronavirus raging, that number jumped to 88%.
But with Trump throwing doubt on the voting process, enthusiasm for mail-in voting has dropped, particularly among Republicans. Less than half of Republican likely voters said they planned to vote by mail, according to the Times/Siena poll.
For Democrats, the number is still high: Three-quarters said they planned to vote by mail.
But unlike some states, Arizona has long allowed for ballots mailed in before Election Day to be counted as they arrive — meaning that the vote tallies we see coming out of the state on the evening of Nov. 3 will probably include most of those sent in by mail.
That means we could see a relatively early election call in Arizona, even as other states sift through millions of uncounted mail-in ballots.