(Note: This story comes from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting through a Creative Commons license. AZCIR is a nonprofit investigative newsroom.)
The fall of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio didn’t result from a surge of Latino voters, despite the opposition he drew from the Hispanic community over his immigration enforcement tactics. Instead, support for Arpaio cratered in reliably Republican areas, denying his bid for a seventh term, an AZCIR analysis of precinct-level voting tallies found.
Arpaio, who once boasted that he was “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and the most popular politician in Arizona, delivered landslide victories between 1992 and 2000. The former DEA agent made a name for himself: He housed inmates in surplus Army tents, clothed them in pink underwear, fed them green bologna, marched them around his jail in shackles, and frequently invited the media for displays of his methods.
But since 2000, Arpaio’s election margins narrowed, while protests over his immigration enforcement tactics more frequently filled the streets around his office, and the U.S. Justice Department mounted a lawsuit over racial profiling and eventually contempt of court for failing to follow court orders.
The Arizona Democratic Party, the Maricopa County Democratic Party and numerous Hispanic advocacy groups rallied for years to mobilize a Latino voting machine in the hopes of ousting Arpaio. But only 15 percent of the votes that swung toward Democrat Paul Penzone between his failed 2012 attempt at ousting Arpaio and his successful 2016 bid came from majority-Hispanic areas.
Rather, toss-up and Republican-leaning precincts with about average Hispanic composition withdrew enough support to tip the election.
In 2012, Arpaio beat Penzone by about 80,000 votes, and support in some Republican areas already showed signs of weakening. This year, Penzone beat Arpaio by 196,000 votes. Of the 276,000 votes that swung away from Arpaio and toward Penzone, about 70 percent came from precincts in which Republicans outnumber Democrats.
Between 2012 and 2016, Arpaio’s portion of the vote fell in all but six of the 724 precincts, and the largest drops came in areas with closer to equal party registration.
Arpaio performed similarly to Trump in precincts where Democrats outnumbered Republicans, capturing 27.8 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 29.7 percent. But voters in Republican-leaning precincts gave Arpaio only 49.3 percent, while giving Trump 54.3 percent, a difference of 5 percentage points.
“I got 650,000 votes. I think that’s pretty good,” Arpaio said after a press conference unveiling his investigation into President Obama’s birth certificate. “A lot of forces (were) against me: the courts, you know what I mean, a day before the election come out, Soros pumped three million dollars in the last thirty days.”
Phoenix-based Republican political consultant Chuck Coughlin said he thinks the accumulating cost of lawsuits eventually eroded support from Republicans concerned with fiscally conservative principles.
“The money was the last tile in the mosaic,” Coughlin said of dwindling support among Republicans.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors earlier this year approved $4.5 million more in taxpayer money to pay for the now $48 million lawsuit over racial profiling by the office. Republicans on the Board of Supervisors, Coughlin pointed out, began to defect from supporting Arpaio, as the costs have ballooned.