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Arizona’s political transformation began long before Biden was on the ballot

Former vice president and then-presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris do a meet-and-greet with chef Silvana Salcido Esparza at her restaurant Barrio Cafe in Phoenix on Oct. 8. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — Arizona's transformation from a onetime conservative stronghold to a swing state capable of deciding this year's presidential election is the result of a decade of work by Mexican American activists, soaring demographic change and the consolidation of independent voters behind Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Biden, who held a narrow lead over the president in the state as ballot-counting continued there, was also buoyed by President Trump’s repeated attacks on the state’s late senator, John McCain, whose wife endorsed Biden, and by the strong and well-funded campaign of former astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat who was declared the winner of McCain’s old seat Friday.

Preliminary exit polls show that Trump and Biden roughly tied among White voters, who made up about three-quarters of the electorate statewide. But Biden won 2 out of every 3 Hispanic voters in the state and enjoyed particularly strong support among Latinas, 7 out of 10 of whom backed Biden.

By party registration, the exit polls showed Biden also had a sizable lead among independent voters, a shift for Democrats since the 2016 campaign. He garnered around 1 out of every 10 votes cast by a Republican.

Key to the shift were Latina voters like Lucia Salinas, who said she volunteered to knock on doors for Biden this year in part because of her anger over Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Latinos transformed Arizona. Do campaigns see them?

Salinas, 41, was laid off from her job as a cook at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport earlier this year, she said, then brought back at reduced hours. It has meant rummaging through recycling in alleys to pay her bills and splitting diabetes medication with her mother.

“He knew what was coming,” she said of Trump and the coronavirus. “He didn’t do nothing about it.”

Many who cast a ballot for Biden in Arizona said they were voting more against the president than for Biden, which tracks with polling done in the state.

Biden’s strength with Latino voters in Arizona stands in contrast to results in Florida and Texas, two states where stronger-than-expected support for Trump among Latinos helped propel the president to victory, exit polls show. The exit polls underscore the extent to which national Democrats have taken these voters for granted even though they are considered a key component of their coalition, activists said.

“Latinos” are not one single electorate. Their political preferences vary based on where they live, their gender, ancestry, education and faith, among other variables.

Arizona’s political transformation was a case of “preparation meets opportunity,” said Ian Danley, the executive director of Arizona Wins, an advocacy organization in the state that coordinates with various political groups. He said the political head winds that made the victory possible included an explosion of eligible Mexican American voters in the state, an infusion of resources in recent years from liberal donors and interest groups, and a moderate electorate increasingly wary of the Republican Party’s allegiance to Trump.

Even in a tense national political climate, regional political trends probably helped turn Arizona more blue — most notably, hard-line laws and rhetoric aimed at immigrants by Republicans over the past decade in the state, which sits along the border with Mexico. Republican leaders have largely softened their tone as the political realities in the state have changed, but the battles of the early 2010s created a class of activists that have been organizing the growing Mexican American electorate ever since.

“I think the Republican rule over the last decade in Arizona has done deep damage with them among Latino voters. It has undoubtedly politicized the Arizona Latino community in a way that I don’t think you’ve seen anywhere else in the country,” Danley said. “That piece of this is hard to overstate. It was such an important part of our political reality, narrative and culture over the last decade. The movement they have led over a decade is real.”

The share of White voters in Arizona without college degrees — a key constituency for Trump — fell by more than five percentage points since the 2016 election, according to an analysis of census data by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. The share of Hispanic voters in the state increased by more than 6 percent during that time.

Danley said Arizona Wins and its partner organizations worked hard to engage voters, with an emphasis on the state’s communities of color, knocking on a combined 1.6 million doors and making 22 million phone calls in order to expand its reach amid coronavirus-related safety concerns. On Election Day, he said, they had about 600 canvassers knocking on doors in the state.

And the same nonprofits that are knocking on doors have a presence between elections, helping to coordinate citizenship classes and educating people about the U.S. census. The relationships that are built are “valuable, and important, and fragile. It takes years to build and you can lose it overnight,” Danley said. “And if you’re knocking a 33 percent Latino precinct, there are still 66 percent other people you have to know how to talk to.”

This infrastructure does not exist in many other states, say critics within Democratic circles, because the Democratic Party has not made the necessary investments.

Meanwhile, Trump’s rhetoric toward his critics may have cost him the support of some of the voters he needed to remain competitive in the state.

Many in Arizona have recoiled in recent years at Trump’s attacks on Sen. John McCain (R), which some political experts in the state say played at least some role in the state slipping away from the president. During his first campaign in 2015, Trump made disparaging comments about McCain’s military record and mocked him for becoming a prisoner of war. Even after McCain’s death in August 2018, Trump continued to make negative remarks about McCain and his career as a public servant.

On the other hand, Biden spoke at McCain’s funeral in Arizona after his death, said Max Fose, a former McCain campaign aide. For Republicans and conservative independents, that outreach meant something. And Cindy McCain’s recent endorsement of Biden drove that home, said Fose.

“I think Cindy McCain’s endorsement of Joe Biden made it okay for Republicans to vote for Joe Biden,” said Fose, who worked on an initiative for the Biden campaign to recruit Republicans like himself. “Donald Trump was an affront to John McCain but also to what John McCain represented, which were American values. And I think Cindy McCain standing up and saying, ‘This is not okay and we need to do something about it,’ I think many people related to that.”

Fose, a Republican, said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema modeled how to campaign successfully as a Democrat in the state by staking a claim in the political center without alienating too many voters on the left, following in the tradition of former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano.

In 2018, Sinema became the first Democrat elected to represent Arizona in the U.S. Senate in three decades. It was a playbook Mark Kelly faithfully executed to become the state’s senator-elect. And both Democrats made pointed overtures to Mexican American communities throughout the state.

Exit polls show that Sinema’s strength in the 2018 election was in part due to her overwhelming support among Mexican Americans in the state, of which Kelly’s team took note and made a key focus of their campaign even before the Biden campaign began to build out its Arizona team. The Biden campaign probably benefited from the strength of Kelly’s campaign outreach, said Joe Garcia, the executive director of Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund in Phoenix.

“What’s ironic is that Joe Biden came here once, it was a real quick pass through. There were a lot of ads, though. Honestly, Arizona is probably sick of all the ads,” he said. “Mark Kelly, on the other hand, did reach out to the Latino community, met with us, listened to us, and did things like host a panel discussion on covid.”

Garcia also noted that he believed Cindy McCain’s endorsement of Biden “really hurt Trump.”

Arizona remains a state with a conservative base of voters. Some said the past few years have solidified their choice to vote Republican, including many White women in the suburbs of Phoenix that Democrats saw as a key to their electoral success.

Rebecca Kitson, a real estate agent living in the suburban community of Scottsdale, said she did not take Trump seriously in 2016 and voted for Hillary Clinton. But now she feels Trump has delivered on his promises. Her alarm over coronavirus shutdowns and nationwide unrest amid Black Lives Matter protests made her decision “very easy,” she said.

“It might have been a harder decision if all the events of 2020 didn’t happen,” said Kitson, 47.

With the official count nearly finished, it is clear Latino voters provided crucial margins Biden needed to win the state.

Now, many national strategists and experts on Latino communities say Arizona provides a case study in why intensive community outreach and door-knocking matters. But the robust grass-roots organizing in Arizona scarcely exists elsewhere in the country besides Nevada. And it is not something any one political candidate can build during a general election; it takes years of dedicated building by national, state and county parties.

“People need to really look at the communities who delivered these miraculous victories in AZ, GA, MI, MN, etc. They are rarely a focus of traditional political investment or electoral strategy, & are often sacrificed in policy negotiations,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in a tweet Friday.

And the absence of such networks in other states may have cost Biden votes, especially where Republicans saw opportunities, such as among evangelical Latinos in Florida. Throughout the election, the Biden campaign had received intermittent criticism — both internal and external — for not making Latino outreach an earlier and more urgent priority.

Asked whether national Democrats needed to do more to reach out to Latino communities, Matt Barreto, the Biden campaign’s pollster, praised grass-roots organizers in Arizona for “laying the groundwork for us.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.