Arizona becomes battleground as Democrats scent rare victory
Hillary Clinton’s campaign blitzes state as it bids to copperfasten lead in polls
US first lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 20th. Photograph: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
A man wears a mask depicting Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton while holding a doll depicting Republican nominee Donald Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 2th. Photograph: Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
In most parts of the United States, a presidential election campaign is something that happens elsewhere. All the money and attention is lavished on a handful of competitive races, allowing the voters of Alabama, California and every other state with a predictable majority go about their lives largely ignored by the parties, the press and the pollsters.
For most of the past half-century, that has been the lot of Arizona, a state which, with the single exception of Bill Clinton’s victory here in 1996, has reliably delivered its 11 electoral votes for Republican candidates in every election since the 1940s.
For much of this election season the pattern looked likely to hold. But in recent weeks, as Hillary Clinton has steadily caught up with and overtaken Donald Trump, Arizona has suddenly become what political demographers had predicted would take it two more election cycles to accomplish: it has become a battleground.
Clinton leads by between three and five points, according to the latest polls, and the scent of a famous victory has prompted her campaign to blitz the state, announcing last week that it was devoting an extra $2 million to television slots, direct mailing and digital advertising here.
Bernie Sanders and Chelsea Clinton have passed through this month, and in perhaps the clearest signal of the Clinton camp’s hopes for the state, Phoenix was chosen as the venue for Michelle Obama’s sole campaign rally last week.
Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist in the state, believes Arizona is “a coin flip” as things stand. He concedes that the Republican Party has some in-built advantages, notably its lead of 180,000 registered voters over the Democrats.
Maricopa County, the most populous in the state, traditionally leans red, as do the rural counties, so if Clinton is to prevail she must win big in the three urban centres where her party is strongest: Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff.
Working in Clinton’s favour is a well-developed ground game, with field operations, get-out-the-vote teams and phone banks set up across the state. The Trump campaign, in contrast, has very little presence on the ground. That imbalance has allowed Clinton’s camp to outpace the Republicans in voter registration all year.
It has also enabled it to mount an early voting drive that has seen its vote up on the same point in 2012, which Barr sees as an encouraging sign. “It’s still a tough math problem for us,” he says. “We always need a perfect storm to win statewide here, but it’s coming together. We’ve got reason to be hopeful right now.”
While a strong field operation helps, Democrats freely admit the real accelerant behind a shift they did not expect to complete this decade has been Trump himself.
According to Barr, the path to victory for a Democrat in Arizona hinges on increasing Latino turnout and getting Republican women to either switch sides or stay at home.
“Donald Trump is the perfect magnet for both of those things for us,” he says. “On paper we shouldn’t be a swing state until 2022. Having Trump on the ballot allows us to skip ahead a few cycles from where we would be on our own. He is running a better campaign for us than we could run on our own.”
Rivalling the Clinton-Trump contest in general ubiquity in Arizona in recent days has been the battle by five-term Republican Senator John McCain to fend off the challenge from Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick and retain his seat.
Democrats hope Trump’s struggles and the flow of blue cash into the state could help Kirkpatrick, but a late spending splurge of his own, coupled with his decision to distance himself from Trump, over a tape of the Republican nominee bragging about sexual assault, has helped McCain stretch his lead in what he has called “the race of my life”.
“In Arizona, people are going to judge Senator McCain for his own positions, because he has served them for so long,” says Christian Ferry, co-founder of Arizona Grassroots Action, a super PAC (political action committee) supporting McCain.
Partly in an effort to offset the absence of a Trump ground game, Arizona Grassroots Action has 100 field officers in the state working on voter registration and get-out-the-vote plans.
Even if Clinton wins in Arizona, however, it may not necessarily mark an irreversible shift in the state’s politics. That’s because if, as Democrats hope, Trump depresses his party’s turnout or prompts moderate Republicans to switch sides, his loss would be at least partly attributable to factors that a cannier or more appealing candidate – one, like George W Bush, who can attract Hispanic votes – could remedy.
Arizona reminds Barr of Virginia more than a decade ago, when it moved in fits and starts before eventually settling into the blue column. “A lot of it depends on what Republicans want to do with their party,” he says. “We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s going to take us a little while.”