Is Republican Arizona Really A 2016 Swing State?

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Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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It’s a recurring Democratic Party fantasy:  Turn Arizona, the Southwest’s most diehard red state, blue. And the key fulcrum for leveraging this transformation? Hispanics. Their numbers are growing with each election cycle. Presently, they are 30 percent of Arizona’s population and 22 percent of the state’s eligible voters, fifth highest in the country.  

The thinking is, with Trump’s Hispanic polling numbers at an all-time low, nationally and within Arizona, the “sleeping giant,” once roused, might finally push a Democratic candidate over the top.

But it’s unlikely to happen this cycle.  

Like Georgia and a number of other traditional Red States that are facing demographic pressures that could eventually land them in the Blue column, Arizona may well be heading in the same direction – but it’s not there yet — Trump or no Trump. Republicans have carried the state every election since 1948, except for 1996, when Bill Clinton narrowly broke through. The GOP has retained control of Arizona, including most state and local offices, ever since.  

Two of Arizona’s neighbors, New Mexico and Nevada, have trended Blue for years, while Colorado has remained a quadrennial battleground. President Obama carried all three states handily in 2008 and 2012.  

But he never came close to winning Arizona, losing the state by a solid nine points both years.  

In the latest poll, conducted by PPP five weeks ago, Trump led Clinton by just 4 points, with 15 percent still undecided. He led by just 2 points when other marginal candidates were included in the survey. An earlier poll, conducted in April, even had Clinton up by seven points. Democrats have looked to these results to suggest that the race in Arizona is a “toss-up.”

Not really. The more recent PPP poll does suggest some signs of disaffection from Trump among Arizona Republicans, with just 65 percent saying they back him, 22 percent opposed, and the rest undecided –  historic lows for a GOP candidate. But the poll was conducted before Trump clinched the GOP nomination. Most observers expect Trump to close that gap. In fact, 77 percent of those surveyed said they would likely support Trump in the end, comparable to the percentage of Democrats that said they would back Clinton.

The survey contains good news for Trump. He has a 19 point lead over Clinton among men, while trailing her by just 8 points among women – which means the notorious “gender gap” actually favors his candidacy. Even more striking, Trump’s net favorability rating is substantially higher than Clinton’s. Unless these numbers change, it’s hard to see her besting the real estate mogul.

Still, opposition to Trump from some quarters appears to be growing. His proposal to build a border wall, which would affect Arizonans who live across from Mexico, has fueled outrage not just from some Hispanics but from independents voters and even some Republican lawmakers who have grown weary of the state’s non-stop battles over immigration. It could also lead to lawsuits from conservative landowners reluctant to cede their property to government control.

State Democrats and Hispanic groups are seeking to boost voter registration, which could marginally influence the election, assuming that Hispanics show up in large number at the polls, a significant problem in recent elections.  

However, there’s no indication that Clinton herself will invest significant resources in Arizona, given the importance of winning traditional battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio and retaining Blue states like Pennsylvania and even Wisconsin that Trump might conceivably flip his way, according to recent polls.

In fact, Hispanics in Arizona, like state voters generally, have tended to tilt more strongly Republican than in neighboring states like Nevada. John McCain, Arizona’s powerful senior senator, has championed comprehensive immigration reform and is a strong supporter of the Hispanic middle class, which is unusually large and prosperous in Arizona. In past cycles, McCain has regularly received nearly half of the Hispanic vote while coasting to re-election.

But in 2016, McCain faces the toughest re-election campaign of his Senate career. And given his tepid support for Trump, he won’t add much leverage to the presidential race. Likewise, former GOP governor, Jan Brewer, who once championed the state’s anti-immigration initiatives, and is considered a possible Trump VP selection, has seen her popularity fade. In the PPP poll, Trump actually polled lower against Clinton with Brewer on his ticket.  

The upshot? Arizona is not Utah, where the state’s Mormons, egged on by Mitt Romney, may well turn against Trump and the GOP, giving Democrats their first political opening in over 50 years. Barring further controversies, Trump should be able to retain traditional GOP voter bases, including older voters and Whites, to keep the Copper State red.

But the race could be unusually close. And by 2030, if not sooner, longer-term demographic changes may well turn Arizona purple or possibly blue, fulfilling the Democrats’ ambition of consolidating their political hold on the entire Southwest.