Staunchly-red Arizona is looking a bit more blue in 2012. Are we poised to become a swing state?
It’s Election Day at CNN headquarters in Washington, D.C. The polls on the east coast closed three hours ago, and the returns are electrifying: Buoyed by projected wins in the swing states of Florida and North Carolina, Republican challenger Mitt Romney has opened a narrow lead on President Obama, who managed to hold serve in the battlegrounds of Ohio and Virginia.
CNN ringmaster Wolf Blitzer whistles as voting results from the west coast start to trickle in. “So give us some projections, John,” he says, speaking to a 10-foot hologram of square-jawed correspondent John King, reporting from Los Angeles. “What are you hearing out there?”
“Well, Wolf, it’s early, but we’re projecting Obama wins in California, Oregon and Washington – because, after all, they’re California, Oregon and Washington,” King cracks, eliciting knowing laughter from Blitzer’s discussion panel.
King’s holographic hand flies over a virtual campaign map. “But here’s a scenario that I like: Give Colorado and New Mexico to the president. Obviously, Utah stays with Governor Romney. Nevada goes to Obama. That gives Romney a 217 to 211 advantage in electoral votes with only Arizona and its 11 votes remaining.”
“That’s spectacular, John,” Blitzer gasps. “What are we hearing from Arizona?”
“Only 30 percent of the precincts have reported, Wolf, and it looks like a dead heat. As you know, the president has been pounding Arizona mercilessly over the past month with TV ads... and it looks to be paying off.”
“Are you telling me that the future of American democracy now hangs in Arizona?” More knowing laughter. “That’s... astounding.”
As you’ve probably noticed, the “mainstream media” has pounded Arizona over the past two years – unfairly or not, characterizing the state as a bastion of coarse right-wing lawmaking and general churlishness. But following a recent poll that shows Republican challenger Mitt Romney with a scant two-point lead over President Obama, some pundits believe that the birthplace of SB1070, Sheriff Joe and Jan Brewer’s “fingergate” could do the near-unthinkable: swing Democrat when Obama meets presumptive Republican nominee Romney in November. Or at least make it close enough to be interesting.
Could Arizona – famously characterized as the “meth lab of democracy” by lefty funnyman Jon Stewart – be realistically poised to become America’s next make-or-break swing state?
“The chances are much greater than people think,” center-left Tempe pollster Michael O’Neil of O’Neil Associates says. “Obama’s modus operandi is to open up new battleground states and try out new places. If his people think they can make it happen, you’ll see his campaign make a major push in Arizona.”
Before we recklessly label Arizona a “swing state” and predict what it might mean for her voters over the next five months, let’s settle on a precise definition of the term. Because it’s not enough that a given state “could go either way” – as if analogous to Lindsay Lohan choosing a romantic partner after an all-night bender at the Marmont. To qualify as a swing state in the truest, most relevant sense – and join celebrated battlegrounds like Ohio, Virginia and Florida – Arizona would need to meet certain criteria.
#1: Size Matters
Iowa is sometimes offhandedly described as a swing state. Solidly Republican throughout the Nixon-Reagan years, Iowa supported the doomed candidacy of Michael Dukakis in 1988, remained Democrat throughout Clinton’s two-term presidency, sided with Al Gore in 2000, but then returned to the GOP camp for George W. Bush’s successful reelection bid in 2004. In 2008, Iowans hopped on the Obama-wagon. Classic swing behavior.
But here’s the thing about Iowa: It’s the size of a Walmart. With just six electoral votes, the Hawkeye State rarely commands the kind of 11th hour campaign love afforded Florida (29 electoral votes) or Ohio (18). Sure, candidates will spend money in Iowa – in 2004, Bush and John Kerry combined to spend $9 million on local TV advertising in the last five weeks of the campaign alone – but only in the most exotic of circumstances would Iowa’s six electors swing the election in one candidate’s favor. And that’s why the state is rarely clumped with the Ohios and Floridas of the world come election season. (This is a good thing. It helps mitigate Iowa’s criminally disproportional influence during the primaries.)
Now consider Arizona. Following the 2010 census, Arizona’s share of electors jumped to 11. That’s less than California (55) and Washington (12) – but those are both solid Democratic states that are essentially earmarked to Obama. It’s also less than Texas (38) – a GOP stronghold that hasn’t voted Democrat since Jimmy Carter. Take away those three non-battleground states, and Arizona is the most elector-rich prize west of the Mississippi River. And that means something. Late on election night, long after the polls have closed on the east coast, Arizona’s ballots could dictate the future of the American presidency. One wonders how Jon Stewart sleeps at night.
#2: No Homers
Some analysts have dismissed Arizona from the swing state conversation based on the 2008 election, in which Senator John McCain took 54 percent of the vote and beat then-Senator Obama by nine percentage points. It wasn’t a particularly close race, but then, how could it have been? McCain was a popular sitting lawmaker running in his home state. From Obama’s perspective, the nine-point outcome wasn’t half bad.
The moral: One can’t draw meaningful conclusions about swing state behavior from elections involving a native or resident candidate. For example, Arkansas has swung Democrat three times since 1976 – three times as many as Arizona. Are we to conclude that Arkansas is three times the swing state? Of course not. They were simply in the bag for native hillbilly son Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and for honorary native hillbilly son Carter in 1976. In real terms, Arkansas swings about as much as the God-fearing Pentecostal dad in Footloose. Which is to say, not a whole damn lot.
#3: Follow the Money
Swinging is partially about voter populations and partisan balance; if a state is to teeter excitingly between two candidates in the manner typical of swing states, the percentage of registered Democrat and Republican voters should be roughly comparable. And so it is in Arizona. According to a State of Arizona registration report released last April, Democrats comprise 30.24 percent of the state’s registered voting population; Republicans account for 35.98 percent. That’s a significant gap, but not insurmountable, given that another 32.9 percent of registered voters are Independents, plenty to tip the vote in either direction.
Just as critically, the swing-state designation is about perception and money. If Obama campaign staffers feel Arizona is “in play” and could be potentially steered to the ticket – as recent polls have suggested – it could use some of the President’s estimated $300,000,000 war chest to unleash a blitzkrieg of TV and radio advertising in Arizona, in addition to campaign visits, voter drives and other costly outlays. The Romney campaign, forced to defend its territory, would retaliate in kind. Voilà. Arizona is a swing state. Because the candidates spend like it’s a swing state.
Question: What does Arizona have in common with Kansas, Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota and five other sparsely-populated heartland states where missile silos outnumber Thai restaurants and evolution is still considered unsettled science?
Answer: Since 1960 – a 52-year timeframe encompassing 13 U.S. presidential election cycles – Arizona and the nine dwarves have each sided with the Democratic candidate precisely once. Their red-state batting average is unparalleled.
So just how realistic is the Arizona battleground scenario? Color Tom Morrissey skeptical. The chairman of the Arizona Republican Party admits he’s heard the idea of a red-to-blue swing “bantered about” but reasonably points to Arizona’s GOP-dominated legislature and other factors as evidence of the state’s inveterate right-ness. “I don’t think we should take anything for granted, but I just don’t see [a competitive race],” Morrissey says. “For one, we have a very strong contingent of Tea Party members out there working for us, and Ron Paul supporters are very strong and out there working, so I think that would stop the swing state aspect in its tracks... I understand the influence of unions and the money being pumped into the state by Democrats, but money will only take you so far.”
By several metrics, Arizona is among the most conservative states in the nation – from the current Republican super-majority in its legislature to its blood-red presidential voting record. Of the 50 states, Arizona alone has resisted implementing any feature of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, a well-known GOP hobgoblin. However, one should keep in mind that Arizona isn’t just the home of SB1070, anti-immigration firebrand Russell Pearce and some of the nation’s most permissive gun laws – it’s also the state that recalled Pearce, passed a medical marijuana initiative, and twice elected Democrat Janet Napolitano to be governor. All of which have led some to conclude that Arizona isn’t quite as conservative as its remarkable legislation sometimes suggests.
“The Arizona legislature is substantially more conservative than [Arizona] as a whole,” O’Neil says, pointing to the recent flurry of Tea Party-led lawmaking, including new rules limiting abortion and a GOP-led bill that would give the federal government a deadline to surrender 25 million acres of protected Arizona wilderness. “That’s why they’re afraid of presenting [these initiatives] for public vote. People would not vote for them.”
Arizona voting Democrat in a presidential election is rare but hardly unprecedented. In fact, it happened the last time there was a sitting Democrat running for reelection against a moderate Republican – in 1996, when Clinton defeated Bob Dole. Of course, circumstances were different then. America was riding high on a post-Cold War security bubble. The economy was humming, and the tea party was still a thing little girls did with plastic flatware and stuffed animals. And because Arizona was surfing the same wave of Clinton-era prosperity that had favored much of the nation, it couldn’t really be considered a swing state. Most every state was swinging back then.
In the midst of an improving if still-ambiguous economy, the salient factor for a potential Democratic victory in Arizona will necessarily be different in 2012. According to O’Neil, it will hinge on whether or not Obama mobilizes Hispanics, who now make up 19 percent of the state’s voting-age population. “Hispanic registration and turnout is the absolute key to it,” O’Neil says. “If you take them out of the equation, Arizona averages six points in the Republican favor.” According to insiders, the Obama campaign stepped up its voter-recruiting efforts in Arizona early this year after several encouraging instances of grassroots Democratic voter turnout, particularly the election of Hispanic firefighter Daniel Valenzuela to the Phoenix City Council. Of course, Valenzuela scored his City Council victory last November – a year too early to effect a coattail advantage for Obama in the 2012 election.
Enter Dr. Richard Carmona. Back in the mid 00’s, Carmona (then U.S. Surgeon General under the George W. Bush administration) met Obama (then the freshman senator from Illinois) on Larry King Live. Years later, the Tucson-based Carmona – a Vietnam veteran and Democrat with sound bipartisan credentials – met with President Obama to discuss running for John Kyl’s soon-to-be-abdicated U.S. Senate seat. “The president talked to me privately,” confirms Carmona, who traces his lineage to Puerto Rico. “There was no arm-twisting. He said ‘I’d like you to consider running for office.’ I met with both Democrats and Republicans while doing my due diligence. Some GOP friends encouraged me to run, too.”
Touting his across-the-aisle bona fides (“I lived across the aisle”), Carmona stipulates that he’s first and foremost focused on his own campaign but acknowledges that his candidacy could mobilize Hispanics and provide Obama with a much-needed collateral boost when voters cast ballots on November 6. “I’ve heard that bandied around as well,” says the 62-year-old physician. “I have good relationships with the Hispanic community. I’ve worked with them on border issues and public health issues… and I believe they’ll come out for me and know I’m supportive of their causes.”
When Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Don Bivens withdrew from the U.S. Senate race last spring – at the behest of Obama himself, according to insiders – Carmona’s nomination was all but assured. Mesa-based Congressman Jeff Flake is the presumptive GOP nominee.
AZGOP Chairman Morrissey – a retired U.S. Marshall who took over the reins of Arizona’s Republican party apparatus last year – doesn’t doubt that Carmona’s candidacy is part of a larger gambit to turn the political tide in Arizona, but he doubts its efficacy. “It was the whole reason he was brought into the campaign – for Obama to ride his coattails,” says Morrissey, a scrappy character whose chewy New York accent has survived the 26 years he’s lived in Arizona. “But coattails will only take you so far. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the deficit. We’re 18 months away from being Greece. So whether [the economy] looks good or not, it can’t be made to look so good as to favor Obama’s reelection.”
Right-leaning pundits agree that the economy will prove to be the ultimate catalyst in Arizona, but not all of them agree that job numbers and real estate values will necessarily factor against Obama. “Right now, the number of Americans who rate their finances as good or excellent is almost exactly the same as when [Obama] took office,” pollster Scott Rasmussen, founder and president of the right-leaning Rasmussen Reports, says. “It’s easy to see Arizona voting Democrat if the economy gets better. If that happens, a lot of states will go that way. If the economy stagnates, they’ll go Romney.”
For that reason, Rasmussen doubts Arizona will prove to be a true swing state in 2012 – more than likely, it will just follow the economic crowd. “I think the Obama team would like to put forward some effort to see if Arizona is in play,” he says. “But it’s hard for me to see Arizona being decisive in the election.” He points to staunchly-Democrat Pennsylvania as a more likely swing-state game-changer, where “Romney is within four points.”
It should be noted Rasmussen made his comments before polls revealed a mere two-point differential between Romney and Obama in Arizona. It seems that the Grand Canyon State may be in play, after all. And if the Obama team deems Arizona worthy of an aggressive campaign push, Valley voters should prepare themselves for the inevitable bombardment of TV attack ads and “I approved this message” testimonials that have been all-but-extinct in Arizona since the 2000 presidential election. In 2008, facing certain defeat, Obama spent all of $57,837 in Phoenix on advertising. By comparison, he spent $8,662,516 in Denver’s battleground media market.
McCain, guaranteed victory in Arizona, spent even less – one suspects the $435 he dropped in Tucson barely covered a want ad in the Arizona Daily Star.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, the Obama campaign has already purchased airtime on Spanish-speaking television stations in Arizona, and the GOP – despite its protestations that Obama presents no real threat to take the state – seems to be hedging its bets. Morrissey strikes a more conciliatory tone on the issue of Latinos and immigration than many prominent Republican thought-leaders in Arizona – suggesting, perhaps, that the AZGOP takes the Obama/Hispanic-voter-connection seriously. “People say that the Latino community is a lock with the Democrats, but I don’t believe that,” he says. “We’ve got a new chairman and a new philosophy for the state GOP. We share the basic tenets of love of family, economic security, and love of God and country [with Hispanics]. We’re all God’s children... and conveying that to the Latino community is very important to the party.”
Whether such entreaties will comfort Hispanic voters remains uncertain in the wake of SB1070 and other measures viewed unfavorably by Hispanics. Tempe pollster O’Neil points out that the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld Arizona’s voter identification law – a victory for its supporters but one unlikely to endear the GOP to minorities. “The purpose of the law is ostensibly to prevent fraud, but it will make it difficult for many citizens to vote as well,” he says. “And most of the people who get excluded are Democrats – either the very old, the very young and minorities.”
It seems likely that if Hispanic voters find themselves unusually mobilized come November, they’ll tend to vote Democrat, just as they did in 2008, when 67 percent of them picked Obama.
O’Neil suggests that Arizona’s aspirations as a battleground may rest on another variable: the fate of Gabrielle Giffords’ empty 8th district congressional seat, which will be decided by special election on June 12 and is likely to have national ramifications. Some will view it as a referendum on Democratic leadership in Arizona, or as a bellwether of the presidential donnybrook to come. If Democrat Ron Barber wins, it seems likely that Arizona will see a bit more of Obama during this campaign than it did in 2008, when he visited the state all of four times. And if that happens, we’ll also see Romney a few times, too – two political titans in a pitched shootout for the West’s last surviving bastion of old-style Goldwater conservatism.
Once again, Arizona has political tongues wagging – and for all the right reasons, says Carmona. “All these races become national races,” he says. “There’s interest all over the country in what’s happening in Arizona. And I appreciate that.”
2008 Campaign Visits - Source: Washington Post
Dist. of Columbia (37/35)
New Hampshire (80/109)
New Jersey (6/7)
New Mexico (7/8)
New York (25/46)
North Carolina (33/6)
North Dakota (2/0)
Puerto Rico (2/1)
Rhode Island (2/1)
South Carolina (45/81)
South Dakota (6/1)
U.S. Virgin Islands (1/0)
West Virginia (3/1)
Candidate Spending Spree in 2008
From April 3 to Nov. 5, 2008, the Obama and McCain campaigns spent more than $360 million on TV and cable ads leading up to the election. Note how the campaigns competed in these select media markets.
Source: Campaign Media Analysis Group
John McCain $125,530,148
Analysis: McCain sunk more than $3 mil into solid-blue Minny – money he could have used in North Carolina, a state he lost by less than 1 percent. Note the low figure in Miami – a traditional Dem stronghold.
Barack Obama $235,974,838
Analysis: Obama ceded Phoenix and Arizona but spent heavily to claim Nevada and its five electoral votes. He also made a futile stab at Montana, outspending McCain 1,000 to 1.