by Fernanda Santos
In an election year set to overturn many precedents, one of the most anticipated is the prospect of Arizona turning blue. In a state that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1952, polls have consistently favored Joe Biden. In our much-watched Senate race, former astronaut Mark Kelly leads Republican incumbent Martha McSally by a comfortable margin. If Kelly wins, the state would send its first all-Democratic Senate delegation to Washington in 67 years.
Talking heads have plenty of explanations for this shift. It’s Latinos! It’s suburbanites! It’s moderate Republicans! These answers make for convenient sound bites. But the desire to explain Arizona through different voter blocs, with a lot of the focus on the increasing Latino population, misses what’s actually happening in Arizona. The key to understanding the state’s leftward shift isn’t identity politics: It’s the issues and ideas that shape daily reality for the people who live and work here.
What the pundit class fails to grasp is that this is a state of fluid plurality, a place where the very definition of “American” is changing as the lines blur and the walls that have long safeguarded a monochromatic hold on power have begun to crack. Several identities often apply to the same person, making it a mistake to attribute changes in Arizona’s political DNA to the work of any one group of voters. I am an immigrant and a naturalized citizen; a college-educated Latina and college professor; a mother and widow whose new partner comes from a family with a long history of military service. Which of these identities guides my vote?
If the boxes we check on bureaucratic forms are our measure, the best way to describe Arizona’s electorate is “other.” Which means the only way to understand why the state as a whole is leaning toward Biden and Kelly over Trump and McSally is to compare how these candidates, and their parties, are approaching some of the biggest concerns among Arizona voters.
A poll by Monmouth University released on Oct. 15 revealed that Arizona voters worry almost equally about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, their ability to access medical care and the risk of losing their economic stability over the next year. They are even more worried about the potential breakdown of law and order.
Now consider how these issues are being addressed in the Senate race. McSally, one of the most endangered Republicans in the Senate, has blamed the coronavirus pandemic on China, pushing aside the federal government’s responsibility to orchestrate a meaningful response. She has stood in lockstep with Trump, who said in the debate last week that the “big spike” in coronavirus cases in Arizona “is gone” when, in fact, the disease is spreading again. The state’s virus reproduction rate has reached levels not seen since mid-June, when Arizona emerged as an epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.
By contrast, McSally’s opponent has sought to avoid partisan labels and position himself as “a senator for Arizona,” as he recently wrote in the Arizona Republic. Kelly has appropriated the very issues revealed in the Monmouth poll as his own key concerns: the unaffordability of health care; the lack of jobs and growing economic insecurity; the state’s pitiful unemployment benefit cap of $240 a week, one of the lowest in the country.
Perhaps surprisingly, the anxiety over law and order doesn’t clearly play to either candidate’s advantage, polls show. But another subject that for years had gotten short shrift in the national political conversation has gained sudden urgency because of the pandemic: education. And there, Democrats appear to be better aligned with Arizona’s electorate than Republicans are. The same Monmouth poll showed that a measure imposing a 3.5 percent surcharge on the income tax rate of high-earners to put more money in teachers’ pockets is on track for approval. Much of the support comes from unaffiliated middle-of-the-road voters, a fast-growing group here. The measure’s popularity has endured despite opposition from the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, and the endorsement of Ducey’s political polar opposite, Bernie Sanders.
“What we’re seeing this year is a result of a political party’s failure to really speak to people around what they care about,” Rodd McLeod, a Phoenix-based Democratic consultant, explained. The Monmouth poll confirms his observation: 53 percent of Arizona voters say Biden “has at least some understanding of the day to day concerns of people like them,” while just 47 percent say the same about Trump.
McLeod’s words also underscore a grasp of the nuances of Arizona that comes from being based in Arizona. Local consultants on both the left and right told me they recognize ideological alignment on important issues, not party loyalty or demographics, as a driving force behind the preferences of voters in our state.
Only counting the ballots will tell us how much bluer Arizona has turned. But if the state reveals itself to be fertile ground for Democrats, it won’t be for the facile identity-politics reasons offered up by the “experts.” It will be because there is truth in the old adage that “all politics is local” — and because one party has adapted itself to Arizonans’ complex character and priorities better than the other.
Fernanda Santos is a journalism professor at Arizona State University and the author of “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.”