In the end, Arizona’s outcome is going to come down to one place: Phoenix’s Maricopa County.
By Election Day, the Phoenix media market alone is expected to be inundated with tens of millions of dollars in presidential campaign ads. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has more than $17 million currently reserved on the airwaves between now and Nov. 3, and President Donald Trump’s campaign has more than $6 million reserved in the state, according to tracker Medium Buying.
Maricopa, which encompasses Phoenix and it’s predominantly white suburbs, including Scottsdale, Chandler, and Glendale, represents about 60 percent of likely voters. Its changing demographics are the reason Arizona — which hasn’t been won by a Democratic presidential nominee since 1996 — is in play.
Migration from California, a growing Latino population, and shifting attitudes among white college-educated voters are reshaping the state’s political landscape, giving it a new status as a true battleground. And Trump’s term in the White House, both Arizona Republicans and Democrats say, is serving as an accelerant.
Early voting begins Oct. 7 in Arizona — which for decades prior to the pandemic had been expanding its mail voting capacity — making September a crucial month for both campaigns. During its August primary, some 90 percent of the electorate cast ballots by mail and Democrats for the first time in a decade are the second-most registered group in the state, surpassing unaffiliated voters.
Moderate swing voters in the Phoenix suburbs are key to Biden’s chances, but the election will also hinge on Latino turnout in Maricopa and Tucson’s Pima County.
“Arizona is definitely one of our most flippable states because of the demographic change, the Latino population is growing so fast in Arizona, coming of age, mostly being driven by young, U.S. born, all citizens,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions and a pollster for Biden’s campaign.
Every aspect of Biden’s Arizona campaign — from digital to paid media — includes outreach to Latinos. Biden’s team is aiming to hit the 70 percent Latino support secured by Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in her successful 2018 run.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who sits on Biden’s Latino Leadership Committee, said the campaign has him working every day on Latino turnout. Biden’s campaign has $300,000 reserved on Spanish language TV; Trump currently has none reserved, according to media tracker Advertising Analytics. And grassroots Latino groups, focused on activating the growing population, are putting their weight behind Biden — some, like Somos Votantes and LUCHA Arizona, have begun socially distant literature drops and canvassing.
“If you want to win Latinos in Arizona, you treat them like you treat white voters in Arizona and you can win,” said Chuck Rocha, former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders. Rocha’s Nuestro PAC has spent more than $1 million in the state so far, including on an ad featuring Kristin Urquiza, an Arizona resident who drew national attention during the Democratic convention when she told the story of how her father died of Covid-19 after putting too much trust in Trump. Rocha is also planning to run ads featuring former staffers to Sanders.
By contrast, greater Arizona is Trump country. If the president loses Maricopa, he’ll have to rely on amped up turnout in the state’s vast rural stretches. Though invested in Maricopa County — which Trump carried by three percentage points in 2016 — his campaign doesn’t consider it a must-win to take the state because of what it sees as a rural Arizona pathway.
“In Arizona, the Trump campaign sees multiple opportunities to expand our base of support, including continued efforts in the fast-growing Maricopa County, a more robust investment in the state’s rural communities, and extending outreach to specific coalitions like the LDS community,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager, referring to the Mormon population in the northeast part of the state.
But Arizona Republicans warn that Trump can only afford to lose Maricopa by a narrow margin.
“[Trump] can’t lose Maricopa County by more than a point or two and have a hope of winning,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican strategist.
That margin will come down to the white, mostly college-educated, usually Republican Maricopa suburbs, which flipped for Sinema. As it stands, Biden leads by roughly 22 points with white college-educated voters in the state — a group Trump won by 6 points in 2016 — according to a monthly tracking poll by Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights. Trump leads with white non-college educated voters, but by a slightly smaller margin than last cycle.
Trump’s law and order message, focusing on unrest in Kenosha, Wis. following the shooting of Jacob Blake by police, is aimed at these voters. Though Trump has been dark on Arizona TV in recent weeks, outside Republican groups blanketed the airwaves in the state during and after the Republican convention with ads opposing defunding the police and featuring the families of officers killed on duty.
“There is no shortage of TV ads right now scaring Arizonans about what will happen under a Biden administration,” said Barrett Marson, a political consultant who advises Republican candidates. “Coronavirus is still happening, the economy has tanked, what does Trump have now? A tough on crime, law and order message. And if that cannot get through, then what else does he have?”
Across recent polls, Biden has led Trump when voters are asked who they trust more on race relations, public safety, or to reduce violence. Nationally, an ABC/Ipsos poll found voters favored Biden by 20 points to reduce violence in the country. A Fox News poll in Arizona found Biden led Trump by 5 points on the issue of handling policing and criminal justice.
Still, across Republican, Democratic, and independent voters in Arizona, the top issues remain jobs and the economy, education and health care. As of August, roughly 61 percent of voters were extremely or moderately concerned about coronavirus, according to OH Predictive Insights.
Republican Kirk Adams, former state House Speaker, like most in the state is waiting to see whether immigration becomes an animating issue. Adams, who passed the controversial SB 1070 bill that gave local authorities the ability to detain anyone without a warrant if they were believed to have committed a deportable offense, has been surprised by the relative absence of issue in the race.
“As it stands right now, this race has been a referendum on Donald Trump,” said Adams, which results in Maricopa’s white swing suburbanites “bleeding out to Joe Biden.” But if that changes, and the race becomes a referendum on crime or another issue, Adams thinks it would benefit Trump.
Another element that could disrupt the race: the McCain family throwing their full weight behind Biden. Cindy McCain, widow of the late Sen. John McCain, narrated a video about the friendship between her husband and Biden at the Democratic National Convention last month. McCain has yet to offer an explicit endorsement as former Sen. Jeff Flake has done.
“It could be a difference maker for the vice president in Arizona,” said Adams, “because those same voters that we’re talking about are those swing suburban voters. John McCain did very well with those people.”