Stepping off the plane in Phoenix, Arizona, passengers are welcomed by a wall of heat. It may be mid-October but the temperature on this autumn weekday is nearing 38 degrees as midday approaches.
The native cacti that spring up along the roadsides, holding their own amid the sea of concrete and housing developments, are a reminder that this was once deep desert country. Today Phoenix, which is located in a picturesque valley surrounded by hills and deep-red rock formations, has become a booming urban centre.
Maricopa County, which includes the greater Phoenix area, was the fastest-growing county in the United States between 2017 and 2019.
Low taxes, more affordable housing and a vibrant entrepreneurial scene have attracted thousands of people over the last decade. This includes retirees who have migrated south from more expensive east-coast cities like New York, and a new generation of younger people who have moved from the midwest or from neighbouring California in search of a better lifestyle.
The rapid demographic changes, coupled with a large and expanding Hispanic community, have fuelled hopes among Democrats that this once reliably Republican state could shift their way in this year’s election.
Arizona, the sixth largest state of the union, has long been eyed by Democrats as a potential swing state. This year they hope that the polarising figure of Donald Trump may help their chances. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week put former vice-president Joe Biden at 48 per cent in the state, with Trump at 46 per cent.
The suburb of Scottsdale, just east of downtown Phoenix, captures the changes that have shifted the sociological and political hue of this region in recent years. Gated communities and golf courses have sprung up in recent years. Cooling mist machines help refresh diners as they sit at many of the stylish restaurants that have opened up in the ubiquitous malls near the landscaped resorts and condo developments.
Jan and her husband Roger moved to Scottsdale from the San Francisco Bay Area two years ago. They both work in the software industry, roles that have involved extensive travel across the world, including to Ireland.
Nearing retirement, they view Scottsdale as a good place to settle down as they approach the next stage of their lives. Like many people in this area they are definite about who they are voting for next month.
“It’s a very important election and we’re voting for Biden, plain and simple,” says Jan. “I’m scared if he doesn’t win to tell you the truth.”
For Jan, her admission is all the more significant. She was once a lifetime Republican, but switched after Trump’s election.
“For me it’s about the candidate, not about the party. Trump is a dictator, he’s a crazy man, a loony,” she says. “After 60 years voting Republican, I’ve switched. This isn’t the Republican party I was part of all those years.”
Roger says he has previously tended to vote Democrat, unlike his wife. Trump’s presidency has appalled him.
“I think the first presidential debate a few weeks ago was a turning point. Even my friends who are staunch Republicans were like, that’s the worst we’ve ever seen. He is just turning people off left, right and centre. He’s his own worst enemy.”
Polling shows that voters like Jan and Roger could help tilt the balance of this election.
About 24km further north in outer Phoenix, Maricopa Democratic Party chairman Steven Slugocki is busy co-ordinating volunteers and candidates as the election campaign enters its final stretch.
For the first time, Democrats are running candidates for every single state and county election that will be on the ballot on November 3rd.
“We are doing everything we can to turn this county blue . . . If Maricopa county goes blue, Arizona goes blue,” he says, noting that the county represents about 64 per cent of all votes in the state.
Due to coronavirus, the campaign has turned mostly digital, with people working from their homes and online.
Slugocki, who grew up in the area and who is raising his young family in the house where his grandmother once lived, has witnessed first-hand the demographic changes that have shaped his home town.
“Younger people, communities of colour – people who are moving here from the midwest, from California. It’s all rapidly changing Arizona from a red state to a blue state,” he says.
But the Democratic strategy is also about reaching out to disaffected Republicans.
“Take this area here,” he says, pointing to the rows of neat suburban houses. “This is traditionally a Republican area, but there’s a lot of people unhappy with Donald Trump. They don’t support his policies, they dislike his demeanour. I think that you’re seeing that crossover of Republican voters are voting Democrat for the first time.”
As well as tapping into Arizona's newest residents, Democrats hope to draw on a strong Hispanic vote. Latinos make up about 30 per cent of Arizona's seven million people, and immigration has always been a big issue in this state which borders Mexico.
Joe Arpaio, who was controversially pardoned by Trump in 2017, was the Maricopa county sheriff for years before being voted out in 2016. His zero-tolerance approach to immigration – he ran a notorious tent-city prison just south of Phoenix – landed him with a criminal conviction after he was found to be illegally targeting Latinos in immigration round-ups, but he was spared a prison term by the presidential pardon.
Although polls have shown Biden struggling with the Latino vote in places like Florida, Democratic support among Latinos is holding up better in Arizona. Another challenge for Democrats in tapping Latino support is voter registration. Vote participation among Latinos has traditionally been low, a problem exacerbated by the fact that many are undocumented.
Prof Richard Herrera of the University of Arizona says that one positive for Democrats going into this election is an uptick in the number of voters registering as Democrats.
“Even in the last two years, registration among Democrats has pretty dramatically increased compared to Republicans and Independents,” he says.
“It’s not just the increase in the number of people in this state that is significant, it is the number of those people who are then voting,” he says. “For example, there is a higher number of Hispanic voters turning 18 than other demographic groups in the state.”
As well as the top-ticket presidential race between Trump and Biden, the Senate race here in Arizona, where astronaut Mark Kelly is taking on Republican Martha McSally, is attracting national attention.
McSally, who unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2018 against Democrat Krysten Sinema in one of the tightest elections of that cycle, was subsequently appointed to replace John McCain after the long-time Arizona senator died. She now faces a tough challenge in the special election to fill his seat.
Kelly is the spouse of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived a shooting to the head in 2010. She spoke at the Democratic National Convention this year – her remarkable fortitude and continuing journey of recovery was one of the most powerful moments of the convention.
A New York Times/Siena College poll last week showed McSally trailing Kelly by double digits, and Senate Republicans in Washington are preparing for a big loss here that will eat into their Senate majority.
If Kelly wins, Arizona will have two Democrat senators – a remarkable turnaround for the state. During last week’s televised debate between the two, McSally, a former air force fighter, evaded questions about her support for Trump, an indication that she believes that an alliance with the president is no longer an advantage in the state he won by four points, despite strong support for him in rural areas.
As the election enters its final stretch, Democrats are taking the Arizona race seriously. Biden and Kamala Harris campaigned in Phoenix last Thursday. Slugocki says there is a new attention on the state, and particularly the most electorally-important county around Phoenix.
“Maricopa County voted for Trump by about 3 per cent in 2016, closer than anybody thought. Hillary [Clinton] didn’t come here until about a week before the election last time, and there wasn’t much attention given to the election. This time, Biden is campaigning here, the team has a full-time staff and are advertising commercials across the board.”
Nonetheless, turning Arizona blue is still a challenge. If Biden wins, he would become only the second Democratic candidate to carry the state since 1948.
It would be a seismic change, part of a bigger structural dynamic that may see Democrats hanging their future on the so-called sun-belt states of the southwest like Texas, Arizona and Nevada, and away from the once-reliably blue midwestern states of the rust belt that have drifted towards the Republicans.
Of course, one question for Democrats is whether a win would be a Trump-specific phenomenon. Republican-leaning voters may well swing back if a more moderate Republican nominee emerges post-Trump.
Nonetheless, this election gives the party their best chance in a long time to win Arizona’s 11 electoral college votes and help Biden win the election.