Arizona, with its vast expanse of red desert and blue sky, is littered with the tombstones of Democrats’ dreams.
At least that has been the case in the past several statewide races.
But with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, some experts suddenly view Arizona no longer as the pitiless graveyard for the minority party but as a state with an untapped well – a place where a confluence of political developments might finally end Republican dominance, and perhaps even usher in an age of Democratic revival.
Others, though, say there’s no way that will happen, at least not in 2016. And the evidence appears to be on their side.
With only a 6-point difference in voter registration between the GOP and the Democratic Party and more than one-third of voters registering as independents (higher than either party), some experts view Arizona as a potential swing state. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com puts Arizona in the list of states with the closest margins of victory for either presidential candidate.
On paper, it looks doable.
In practice, Arizona last elected a Democrat to a statewide office eight years ago, when the political wave that put Barack Obama in the White House carried two Democrats to the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Still, it’s not impossible to turn this deeply red border state into something resembling a bluish hue. But the right elements have to be present, and local pundits here don’t see them converging this year.
The best narrative for a new age of Democratic dominance (or at least some major victories this year, starting with the presidential contest) is the possibility that the party’s hopes for a Latino surge will finally be realized.
Arizona’s Latino population (now at 30 percent) is growing. Exit polls show its share of the vote is spiking (18 percent in 2012). With a lot of room to grow, that trend is likely to persist.
Geoffrey Skelley, the associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, also noted a 6.5 percentage point increase in the 18 and older citizen population of Latino origin between 2010 and 2014, expanding the demographics’ potential voter pool.
Assuming people’s voting tendencies remain largely the same, these changes could make Arizona more competitive.
“But throw in Donald Trump’s controversial rhetoric regarding Latinos and illegal immigration, and the timetable for competitiveness just moved up,” Skelley said.
According to the most recent Latino Decisions poll, Trump is trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton by a wide margin, 74-16 percent, with 10 percent undecided. Other polls confirm that trend, with Trump struggling mightily to garner Latinos’ support.
Skelley ventured to say Clinton has a “decent chance” of outperforming Obama’s 2012 numbers among Latinos, given the number of undecided voters. That year, Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote nationally, compared to Mitt Romney’s 27 percent.
Part of this narrative includes a surge in the applications for U.S. citizenship, which pundits predict will favor Clinton. Activists also say they are seeing a spike in enthusiasm among Latinos similar to the levels that helped carry Obama to the White House in 2008.
Buoyed by a belief that Arizona could at least turn purple and become a swing state, the Democratic Party began organizing for the 2016 elections in late January, much earlier than in previous years. As of July, the party already has 100 staffers on the ground.
And, from January to May, Democrats have registered more than 73,000 new voters, nearly 17,000 more than the GOP.
But GOP political consultant Sean Noble isn’t buying the narrative.
“Although the Latino demographics are improving and we have more Latino voters than we’ve ever had, it’s still not enough. If there’s some spike, it’s only going to move the needle a couple of percent,” he predicted.
In fact, consultants have for decades predicted the unleashing of the Latino vote. In Arizona, speculation about when the sleeping giant’s slumber will end has become a perennial pastime.
In the meantime, the closest Democrats got to winning a statewide race after 2008 was in 2014, when David Garcia fell 16,000 votes short of defeating Republican candidate Diane Douglas in the race for state superintendent of public instruction.
Of course, presidential contests operate under vastly different dynamics than local contests. But the superintendent’s race was supposed to be winnable for Democrats.
Against a polarizing figure who vowed to abolish the Common Core education standards, Garcia emerged as the establishment’s consensus candidate. Two former superintendents, both Republicans, endorsed him. So did the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which rarely backs a Democrat in a statewide race.
In addition, Douglas had adopted a strategy of minimizing her exposure to the press, which some saw as a means to maximize the chances that people would revert to their default behavior by voting for their party’s nominee.
The strategy worked, and that’s why Republican consultants like Constantin Querard are highly skeptical of any talk about Clinton winning in Arizona, arguing that, even under the best case scenario, the minority still can’t seem to catch a break.
New territory, old habits
Perhaps the best argument for why Arizona remains a graveyard for Democratic hopefuls is voters’ ultimate tendency to stick with their party.
Randy Parraz, who successfully led the recall of state Sen. Russell Pearce in 2011, said with the GOP so fractured, this year has turned into a “new territory for all sorts of groups” to try to turn Arizona into a battleground state. But for that to happen, Parraz said Democrats would have to over-perform, Republicans would have to under-perform and independents would have to be persuaded to support Democratic candidates in numbers greater than they ever have.
Already, some Republicans say they are considering a third-party candidate. Others are so offended by Trump that they have resigned their posts as delegates rather than go to Cleveland next week and be forced to vote for the GOP nominee during the Republican National Convention, which begins July 18.
But whether their number is enough to make a dent remains to be seen.
Noble, the GOP consultant, said the problem for Democrats is that for every new Latino voter they will gain, they will lose a “middle class, blue collar Democrat that’s going to vote for Trump.”
And that scenario assumes a Latino surge, Noble said.
Noble also rejected the premise that Republicans sitting out or voting for Clinton (or a third-party candidate) would make a significant difference in November.
“For every Republican who stays home and doesn’t vote because they can’t stomach Trump, you’ve got a Bernie Sanders voter who is going to stay home because they can’t stomach Hillary,” Noble said.
Undeniably, Trump is going to lose some Republican votes, another GOP consultant, Chad Willems, said.
“(But) He also picks up voters in the blue collar Democrat demographic and the independent demographic,” Willems said. “There’s going to be a lot of currents in this campaign, where people will be crossing over I think more than you’ve historically seen.”
The big unknown, Willems said, is how this will all play out in November.
A strong third-party candidate
Consultants also say the registration gap between the parties is so wide that a strong third-party candidate has to emerge and chip away just enough at the Republican advantage to create an opening for a Democrat to exploit.
When people note that Bill Clinton captured Arizona in 1996, they often forget that third-party candidate Ross Perot ran again that year, garnering 8 percent of the vote and enabling Clinton to win the state by a plurality.
By contrast, in the last two presidential elections, the best that a third-party candidate (Libertarian Party nominees Bob Barr and Gary Johnson, respectively) could manage was less than 2 percent each. John McCain won his home state expectedly in 2008, and Mitt Romney had no problem keeping Arizona in the red column in 2012.
Libertarian Johnson is again running this year, and, interestingly, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com sees him capturing 8.9 percent of the vote in Arizona.
Actually, it’s not unprecedented for a third-party candidate to act as a spoiler in Arizona. In 2002, then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano won the governor’s race by less than 12,000 votes in a race in which many believed Democrat-turned-independent Richard Mahoney’s third-party run hurt Republican Matt Salmon the most.
Not many see Johnson pulling the same kind of support that turned Arizona purple in 1996. A recent local poll shows 5.8 percent of respondents saying they would vote for a third-party candidate, while roughly the same number is undecided.
Trump’s Mormon problem
While Clinton and Trump are entering the general election as two of the country’s most unpopular presidential candidates, the GOP candidate faces a real conundrum: Mormons, who are his party’s most reliable religious voting bloc, detest him, and their population in Arizona is big enough to make a serious dent in the elections.
Indeed, the Mormon vote could become Trump’s Achilles heel.
Trump handily won his primary race in Arizona, but he didn’t fare as well in counties with sizable Mormon populations.
The Atlantic’s Jack Jenkins earlier explored why Mormons might be averse to Trump.
“For many Utahans, the businessman’s attacks on other religious groups, while popular with some, hedge uncomfortably close to the Mormon faith’s own troubled past,” Jenkins wrote, adding that “Mormons – like modern-day Muslims – have a long history of being rejected by their fellow Americans because of their beliefs.”
Indeed, many had attributed Russell Pearce’s loss to fellow Mormon Jerry Lewis in 2011 to his strict-enforcement approach to immigration, which he continued to espouse against the backdrop of a church that had waded forcefully, and not on his side, into the issue.
The most telling story of Mormons’ rejection of Trump was on display in Utah’s primary, where the GOP frontrunner lost badly. The Washington Post had looked at the overlap of Trump opposition and the Mormon population, and concluded that “where there are more Mormons in Idaho and Nevada, Trump has done worse.”
Tyler Montague, an activist from the East Valley who is also Mormon, noted Trump’s poor showing in Utah and in Arizona counties with a sizable Mormon population.
“If you look at what happened in Utah, I think you would see that mirrored in our communities as well,” he said.
There are signs of a crack in the GOP’s hold of the Mormon vote.
One LDS voter, Tom Carson of Mesa, said he wants to secure the southern border with Mexico, which mirrors somewhat Trump’s tough talk on immigration. But, he added, “we’re not going to round up (undocumented immigrants) and split families.”
He said he’s been trying to like Trump.
“But I’m having a really hard time,” he said.
If the Mormon vote turned out against Trump, and all the other factors converged in Clinton’s favor, she might yet find a way to tiptoe around the tombstones, where the aspirations of her Democratic colleagues have perennially been laid to rest.