State of the States: Arizona

Looks like Arizona is front and center from now until November 3 (plus however long it takes them to count.) Of all the traditionally red states (AZ has voted for a Democrat only once since 1948), it looks like the best opportunity for Joe Biden to flip. He’s got a stronger lead there than in Florida, where the Obama-Biden ticket won twice. Odds are similar to Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump ended a 6 election Democratic streak in 2016.

Arizona is key to Biden being able to win even if one of the more common Democratic targets doesn’t work out. Much as I enjoy pushing back on conventional wisdom, the closer you look, the more this seems like a legit possibility. While I have no idea if or when Texas will go blue, Arizona will be giving Democratic presidential candidates a boost from their national average by 2028 at the latest. Even now, it’s a clear target for a Democrat who wins the popular vote by a couple/few points.

2016 Results: Donald Trump 48.08%, Hillary Clinton 44.58%, Gary Johnson 4.08%, Jill Stein 1.32% (R+6)

We remember the polls were a little off in MI, PA, WI, and FL. And those little mistakes turned in to a big electoral surprise. Arizona was wrong too. Not by a ton, but by enough. Instead of a toss-up or even a slight Clinton lean, Trump won by almost 4 points. This goof had consequences. Because Arizona appeared very in play, the Clinton campaign spent candidate time and resources there, instead of the razor close Midwestern states (which she didn’t think were so threatened.)

If it had worked, she would have broadened the map, given her 2020 GOP opponent another state to pull back in the Republican column, etc. Instead her campaign will live in political infamy. It was really close though. Didn’t miss by much.

2020 Polls: Biden leads by 4.3% in the FiveThirtyEight weighted average. They think he has a 65% chance of winning. The Cook Political Report just moved Arizona to Lean Dem. Are we poised for another big tease?

Arizona is sitting at about R+3 right now, down from R+6 in 2016. All things being equal, this seems correct. Maricopa County is 62% of the state’s population. It’s heavily suburban. Communities like this moved a couple points towards the Democrats in the 2018 midterm. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won her Senate election by 2.4%. She was a good candidate. Her opponent Martha McSally wasn’t. This is the equivalent of R+4 or so.

McSally then got appointed to the late John McCain’s seat and is being challenged by Mark Kelly, ex-astronaut, and husband of Gabby Giffords, former congresswoman who was seriously wounded in a mass shooting about a decade ago. He’s the better candidate. The polling margin is Kelly +6 or so. This feels like R+2 or 3.

Monmouth, a highly rated pollster, just released a new survey showing Biden ahead by anywhere between 4 points and none. The difference is the turnout model. Most observers are predicting higher participation this year. Under that scenario, Biden has the 4 point edge. If it’s more like 2016, he leads by 2. Should Covid or other factors drop turnout noticeably below 2016, we have that tie.

All of this looks credible. If Biden improves his national position by 2-3 points, he’s likely safe in Arizona and the state is a good bet to flip. Reminder, that doesn’t make it blue yet. If the national race remains where it is, Biden is favored, but poor turnout, especially among Latino voters and it’s going to be very close, with Trump very capable of an extremely narrow win.

Should Biden give up a couple points nationally, this immediately becomes a coin flip at worst for Trump.

Key Historical Shifts: Believe it or not, Arizona entered the Union as a blue state and remained as such through 1948. On the eve of World War II, the state was sparsely populated (under 500,000 residents), semi-rural, and populist. Then air conditioning became readily accessible and everything changed.

By the time Arizona enthusiastically re-elected Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, the state had over a million residents, many in new suburbs in the Phoenix area. These transplants from the Midwest brought their GOP leanings with them. For the next several decades, as Arizona expanded and new homes sprawled across Maricopa County, it became a Republican bulwark.

The suburbs give and take away. Now that Democrats have an edge in many suburban communities, the layout of Arizona is no longer so favorable. Combined with an increase in Latino citizens and even quicker increase in eligible Latino voters, the math is changing. This isn’t like West Virginia where the state switched loyalties overnight, without demographics moving. Instead, it’s a slow, 2 or 3 point move to the left in each of the past few elections. Adds up after awhile.

Phase One (1912-1948): Arizona was bluer than America in every election. Republicans still won the state as part of their landslides in 1920, 1924, and 1928. The state joined Florida, Virginia, Texas, and a few other states in being anti-Catholic in the latter year, giving Al Smith a +2, compared to +15 to +19 for the Democrat in the 3 elections before and 3 after.

Phase Two (1952-1960): Arizona got a little less blue and then a little more red in every election from 1940 to 1964. This phase was the interim step between blue and legit red.

Phase Three (1964-1988): The apex of GOP control of the suburbs, before they began getting a bit more integrated, and Bill Clinton’s brand of fiscal moderation/conservatism combined with social liberalism began rearranging the chessboard. The Republican advantage ranged from +15 to +23, with one exception. And that (1972) +8 outlier led to Richard Nixon winning the state by 31 points.

Phase Four (1992-2016): While the state has remained red in each election, it’s usually single digits. The best result (+16) was driven by having John McCain on the ballot. We’ll find out in a few weeks if 2020 is one more election in the previous series, or the beginning of a new phase.

How Biden Can Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: There are some states where Biden is ideal for improvement. For example, Minnesota is polling a lot better than many assumed. Texas is a decent fit, etc. Arizona isn’t. Biden’s favorability ratings are lower than his national numbers. His extra support is coming from Maricopa County (62% of the state’s population) suburbanites who disliked both candidates in 2016 and picked Trump, now dislike both 2020 options, but are exhausted by the president and want a change.

There was room to get a larger percentage of Latino voters. Polls say Biden isn’t doing this. His opportunity is to turn out a higher percentage. If it works, it’s more of a vote against Trump than for Biden, but if Uncle Joe is pledging to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution on January 20, don’t think he’s gonna care how he got there.

How Trump Can Improve on His 2016 Result: At the moment, Trump is 8 points behind his 2016 finish. This is despite running ahead of 2016 in the rural counties. Giving up a few percent in Maricopa is lethal that way. If Biden can get enough Millennial and Gen Z Latinos to the polls, it will be even worse.

I don’t think there’s much chance of Trump improving on R+6. The only way he wins Arizona by more than last time is to make the national race much closer.

Forecast: States like Arizona are why this election isn’t a done deal for Biden just yet. States like Arizona are why Nikki Haley would have a real solid chance of winning the presidency in 2024. They’re just too close. Turnout matters too much. And it won’t matter on November 3, 2020 how blue Arizona will be in 2028 or 2032.

All temporizing aside, I think Biden wins the state.

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