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When it comes to presidential politics in Arizona, Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole help explain 72 years of voting. Every Republican since Ike in 1952 has carried the state, except for Dole in 1996.

That long Republican-red history could be upended in November if dozens of polls and more recent voting trends hold up.

Current polling

The Real Clear Politics average has Biden up by 2.7 percentage points.

Note: Of the 32 polls taken in the quarantine/Biden frontrunner period, Biden has led in 25, with three ties, according to Real Clear Politics.

Arizona is a magnet for transplants from across the country and has a large, Democratic-leaning Hispanic population that voted in more sizable numbers in 2018. Those factors, along with a large independent electorate that swung mostly to Democrats two years ago, helped push the state — once the base of GOP presidential nominees Barry Goldwater and John McCain — to battleground status.

Current status

“When you look at what issues that Democrats and independents care about, you’ve got health care and education as No. 1 and 2 for both independents and Democrats,” said Ron Ober, a Democratic campaign consultant in Phoenix. “When you look at Republicans, the No. 1 issue in their primary is immigration, so you’ve got a disconnect between Republicans and independents.”

Growing signs indicate these demographic trends could make it harder for President Donald Trump to hold on to a state he carried by 3.5 percentage points in 2016.

2016 results

Trump won by 3.5 percentage points over Clinton.

Note: It was the smallest margin for a GOP candidate since Bob Dole lost the state in 1996. Beginning in 1952, GOP candidates have carried the state every time except 1996.

2016 polling average

Here are four areas in Arizona that will help settle the presidential race:

The Loop 101 corridor/southeastern Maricopa County

Metro Phoenix accounts for the majority of the votes in Arizona. And the area that roughly corresponds to the Loop 101 that circles the city to the north was the state’s purple battleground in the 2018 midterm election.

Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who casts herself as a pragmatic centrist, won the state’s U.S. Senate race in 2018 by 2 percentage points to give Arizona Democrats their first win in a Senate contest since 1988.

Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally (L) and Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema (R) prepare to debate at the studios of the KAET public television station in Phoenix on Oct. 15, 2018.
RICK D’ELIA, EPA-EFE

The suburban ring around Phoenix also voted strongly for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in the same election. This area includes the suburbs southeast of Phoenix and parts of Chandler and Gilbert — affluent, college-educated communities with a history of voting Republican. 

“One of the common denominators that we’ve seen in all these battleground areas is these are typically places where there has been an enormous number of people, whether it’s because of job relocations or new companies, that have moved to Arizona,” said GOP consultant Lorna Romero, the 2016 campaign spokeswoman for the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a former staffer to former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.

“My guess would be right now that this isn’t some type of long-term political realignment,” she said. “I think that a lot of this has to do with the rhetoric coming from the president. You see Republicans who are changing party affiliation to independents. … I do think it’s a Trump factor, and I don’t know how long it will last.”

These purple areas matter not only because they show new support for a Democrat, but also because they vote in significant numbers. Turnout from this area will likely be on the higher side, magnifying its importance in a close race. 

7th Congressional District

Residents of Arizona’s 7th Congressional District, which includes downtown Phoenix and neighborhoods to the south and west, are among the youngest in the nation — with a median age under 30, according to Census Bureau data. 

This majority-Hispanic district led by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., has the largest share of Democratic voters in Arizona’s nine congressional districts. But it also has the fewest registered voters, reflecting its relatively young, often transient population.

In the 2018 midterm elections, voters showed up in more significant numbers than usual. That matters in this district because registered Democrats had a 38-percentage point advantage over registered Republicans among those who actually voted. It provided thousands of extra votes for Democrats in statewide races. 

Tony Valdovinos, founder of La Machine, a political organization that focuses on boosting turnout for Latino candidates, mainly through grassroots campaigns, said the change is no accident. 

One reason for the district’s greater engagement is Arizona’s recent history on immigration-enforcement efforts that are viewed by many members of the Hispanic community as racist. The area acutely felt the fear of raids for undocumented workers under former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a prominent early Trump ally. And Arizona’s 2010 law known as Senate Bill 1070 helped motivate many in the Hispanic community to get more involved in politics — activism that has grown over the past decade and helped oust Arpaio in 2016 and helped Sinema win in 2018.

“The turnout is due to the heavy amount of work of organizations like ours and others that have truly been pounding the pavement,” Valdovinos said. “We’ve been knocking doors, talking to Latinos in Spanish about the importance of participating.

“We’re in the most critical year, where we did lose the ability to mobilize as deeply as we wanted to. That was due to safety concerns with COVID. I think that the entire electoral world has switched gears and incorporated heavier amounts of technology.”

If Democrats are to do well in Arizona this year, they need to run up larger-than-normal numbers of votes in this safely blue area.

Pima County

The county is home to Tucson and the University of Arizona. Its 1 million residents make it about as populous as Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta.

It’s also a major headache for Republicans who need votes there.

This area has a long reputation for leaning liberal, and in more recent years, voters there have overwhelmingly favored Democrats.

“It’s been a rough place for Republicans the last four years,” said Chad Heywood, who was executive director of the Arizona Republican Party from 2013 until 2016. In Pima County, Republicans “have lost their legislative seats, and Democrats have moved even further to the left in municipal races, kicking out establishment Democrats.”

In Arizona’s 2018 Senate race, voters in Pima County collectively chose Sinema, a Democrat, over Martha McSally, a Republican, by a wider margin than voters in Maricopa County, the home to Phoenix, which is more than four times as populous.

Trump did about as poorly in Pima County in 2016 as McSally did in 2018. He got 40% of the vote there; she got 41% in 2018.

Donald Trump speaks with Arte Moreno at a “Latinos for Trump” event on Monday in Phoenix.
Andrew Harnik, AP

The difference: Trump narrowly carried Maricopa County and won big everywhere else, while McSally did not. 

The problem for Trump and other Republicans is that competing in Pima County could drain resources in Phoenix that often bring better results. Maricopa County includes a much larger metro area where Republicans can still win majorities decisive enough to take the state.

But by neglecting Pima County, Republicans risk piling up vote deficits that could prove insurmountable if they don’t win Maricopa County.

The Biden and Trump campaigns seem to understand the importance of both of Arizona’s urban counties. Phoenix was the No. 1 media market for TV ads nationally from the Biden campaign this summer, and Tucson was No. 3, according to the nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks campaign ads.

At the same time, the Trump campaign made Phoenix and Tucson its top two national targets, though the numbers were smaller than the Biden campaign’s.  

Rural Arizona

Republicans are relying more than ever on running up big numbers in the rest of the state, which is roughly described as rural or greater Arizona.

Maricopa and Pima counties, where Democrats are focusing, accounted for 74% of the votes in Arizona in 2016 and 2018.

Including her strong showing in Pima County, Hillary Clinton narrowly led Trump in the state’s two population centers in 2016. But Trump carried the state overall because of a 17-percentage point margin over her in Arizona’s 13 other counties. 

By comparison, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Maricopa and Pima counties by 121,000 votes in 2012. The rest of Arizona padded his lead by another 87,000 votes. Romney carried Arizona by 208,000 votes over President Barack Obama.

Rural Arizona, once a stronghold for Democrats, is older and whiter than the urban centers and again is expected to support Trump in big numbers.

“The interesting thing about Arizona is there’s a lot of talk about the suburbs trending blue,” Heywood said. “But there’s not a lot of talk about exurbs and they’re getting red.”

Trump has been to Yuma in southwestern Arizona twice this year. 

The Trump campaign and other GOP officials have been working hard for more than a year to ensure turnout in areas such as the Prescott Valley in northwestern Arizona and Pinal County, which sits between Phoenix and Tucson.  

“For me, I think it’s all about rural Arizona for this election cycle,” Romero said. “I think the advantage that the president has … is the ground game they have. They’ve been really working rural areas more than you’ve seen from the Democrats. Boots on the ground really makes a difference in those rural areas.”

Arizona Facts

Shift

Democrats won four statewide elections in Arizona in 2018 after winning none in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016.

One of them was the U.S. Senate race won by Kyrsten Sinema. It was the first Democratic victory in a Senate race in Arizona since 1988 (Dennis DeConcini). For context, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was easily re-elected in the same election, underscoring the overall purplish nature of Arizona voters.

Democrats also won five of the state’s nine U.S. House races in 2018. 

Overall, Sinema won by 2.3 percentage points. House Dems won by 1.7 percentage points. The Dem gubernatorial candidate lost by 14.2 percentage points.  

By contrast, in 2016, House Dems lost to House GOP candidates by 9.5 percentage points. The Senate Democratic candidate, Ann Kirkpatrick, lost to Sen. John McCain by 13.7 percentage points.

About this series:

Six states above all others have emerged as the top electoral prizes in the 2020 race for president: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. 

They represent 101 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. These aren’t the only battlegrounds in 2020, but their size and competitiveness has made them the states most likely to decide the presidency. 

In this series, the USA TODAY Network offers a closer look at the battlegrounds within the battlegrounds – the keys to the political map in the states that are likely to choose the next president.    

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4493. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.

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