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Arizona Is The Democrats’ Purple Splotch In The Sunbelt

Is Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave? Is Arizona turning blue in 2020?

By every polling indication, the answer is yes. The latest ream of surveys coming out of the state show President Trump trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The FiveThirtyEight polling average of Arizona has shown Biden with a lead of anywhere from 4.5 to 5 percentage points during the month of September, and our forecast gives Biden a 65 percent chance1 of winning the state.

Arizona’s blue-ish tint has not been the norm. The last time the state voted for a Democrat for president was in 1996. Before that, Arizona had a streak of voting for Republicans that dated back to 1952. But while Trump won the state with 48.1 percent of the vote in 2016, his was the narrowest margin of Republican victory in recent memory. Mitt Romney won Arizona with 54.2 percent of the vote in 2012 and John McCain won it (his home state) by around the same in 2008. George W. Bush got 55 percent of the vote in 2004.

But now Arizona is probably a bona fide swing state. That might be difficult to conceive at first — Goldwater, “maverick” McCain, and the latter-day celebrity of Sheriff Joe Arpaio have solidified the state as the conservative cowboy of American pop culture. But a combination of long-term demographic changes and the, uh, unusual nature of the 2020 election, have revealed the state for what it is: a purple splotch in the desert.

That’s in part because of Latino voters, who are a rapidly growing group in Arizona and promise to play a larger role in the 2020 election than in previous years. According to Pew Research Center projections, for the first time Latinos will be the largest minority group participating in the 2020 election, with 32 million Latinos eligible to vote. Arizona has among the largest Latino populations in the country — 31.7 percent of the state’s population is Latino, according to 2019 American Community Survey estimates, up from 25.2 percent in the year 2000 — and the group’s participation in elections appears to be growing. Exit polls from the 2008 presidential election showed Latino voters as 16 percent of Arizona’s electorate, and an independent analysis of the state’s electorate in 2016 showed that about 21 percent was Latino. In 2018, exit polls showed that 18 percent of Arizona voters were Latino in a year that gave Democrat Kyrsten Sinema the victory in a close Senate Race.

While the Latino vote isn’t a monolith, there are factors that tend to make Arizona’s Latinos more Democratic-leaning. For one thing, the majority of Latinos in Arizona are of Mexican descent, a group that has leaned more Democratic than, say, Cuban Americans. According to data from Equis Research, compared to more Republican-leaning Texas, there’s a higher rate of foreign-born Latinos in Arizona, and they tend to be more anti-Trump. A higher share of Arizona’s Latinos live in more urban areas compared to Texas’s Latinos, another factor that skews their vote more Democratic.

In addition to the population growth of Latinos in Arizona, Democrats say that they’ve also worked to leverage their advantage with the community. “We’ve created an electorate,” Democratic strategist Rodd McLeod said of the party and community groups. He pointed to Arizona’s Permanent Early Voting List — even before the pandemic, about 80 percent of the state voted by mail — as one key to building out the Democratic coalition in the state. Identifying people who are “on the edge of voting or not voting,” McLeod said, helped push out reminders and door-knockers to voters who might not be in the habit of regularly casting a ballot, like some Latino voters.

But ongoing demographic shifts are not the only reason that Arizona is competitive in the 2020 race. White voters are also leaning towards Biden, marking a change from 2016 when Trump won 54 percent of Arizona’s white voters, according to exit polls. Current polls show a much closer race between Biden and Trump with that group: a recent New York Times/Siena College survey, for example, showed Trump leading Biden by only a percentage point with white voters overall in the state. Among white voters with a college degree, Biden was beating Trump by 15 percentage points — Trump won that group in Arizona in 2016, by a margin of 6 points, according to the exit polls.

Trump’s problem with suburban white voters is magnified in Arizona, where many of the state’s votes lie in the dense suburbia that is Maricopa County. What’s more, those white, suburban independents in Arizona are more likely to be over 65 than elsewhere in the country, a group that Trump is struggling with. Arizona has the 12th-highest share of Americans over the age of 65, according to a 2018 analysis by the Population Reference Bureau.

Mike Noble, chief pollster at Arizona-based OH Predictive Insights told me that Republicans’ trouble in the suburbs could be traced back to 2018 in the Martha McSally-Kyrsten Sinema Senate race. When he looked at precincts that flipped their party loyalty from 2016 to 2018, Noble told me, McSally, the Republican candidate, was on the losing side of things: Over 80 districts in suburban Maricopa County that voted for Trump had switched over to vote for Sinema. “The composition of the folks there is white, college educated, independents, self-identified moderates,” Noble said. In the Trump era, he said, independents in the state who had once leaned to the right were now leaning left. Voters are more preoccupied these days with health care, the economy and education, according to Noble’s data. That’s a reversal from last year, he said, when Arizona voters saw immigration as a top issue.

“I would say actually, Arizona is a very much an independent state,” he said. “If anyone has ever run to the far left or far right, they’ve gotten walloped.”

At least that’s the case in recent history. Before that, Barry Goldwater had some things to say.


  1. As of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.