When people talk about the importance of the Latino vote in US presidential elections, I am always reminded of the old joke people used to make about Brazil: “It’s the country of the future, and always will be.”
Hispanics now account for 18 percent of the US population, or 60 million people, and for the past several presidential elections we have been told we would prove the decisive voting bloc. But the hype has been premature and exaggerated, for at least three reasons: many of us are clustered in less competitive states like California and Texas (and you may recall our old friend the electoral college); we tend to punch below our weight, or numbers, in terms of participation in the process; and we are less of a “voting bloc” in any event, being more diverse than many political pundits would have you believe.
But there is one crucial battleground this year where the Latino vote will play an outsized role, and that’s in balmy, booming Maricopa County in Arizona.
But before we go there, let’s remind ourselves of some basic math. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a score of 306-to-232 electoral college votes (pause here to vent about how that’s possible when he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes). Going into the 2020 vote, the polls don’t look good for the ailing president, and if he were to lose states like Florida or Ohio, this will be a Biden blowout.
But assuming Trump’s health and electoral prospects improve in coming weeks, and that the poll that matters on Nov. 3 is tighter than what we are seeing today, the four states likely to decide this election are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona. Those are four states Trump carried last time, and Biden’s clearest path to victory (assuming Ohio and Florida stay in the GOP column) is reversing the result in three of those four. Actually, not to jinx things, but if Biden wins over WI, AZ, and MI, and Trump keeps PA and the rest of the map stays as it was in 2016, we will then have the much dreaded 269-269 electoral college tie, which would be peak 2020.
Among these four battleground states, Arizona stands out for several reasons. It’s the only one that has been solidly Republican in recent presidential elections (Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to carry the state, in 1996), whereas MI, WI, and PA were all surprise pick-ups by Trump after they went for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. But AZ has seen the largest swing in any state away from Trump to his rival, if you compare 2020 results to current polls. It’s also a state with a large number of eligible Latino voters (24% of the total, or 1.2 million).
Maricopa County is the sprawling heart of Arizona; the fastest growing US county in this century, and the fourth most populous in the nation. Containing the cities of Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, Scottsdale, among others, Maricopa is a vast archetype of 21st Century America. Beyond its majestic saguaros and renowned golf courses that attract wealthy retirees, snowbirds, and baseball teams in need of offseason training, Maricopa County is home to tremendous diversity (31% Hispanic), a vibrant tech sector, a growing light rail transportation system, and the nation’s most innovative public university (that’s a plug for my employer). The county, which Trump carried by a margin of 3 percent in 2016, accounts for more than half the state’s votes.
Both Maricopa County and the state of Arizona defy lazy, outdated stereotypes. The anti-immigrant zeal of the county’s former, longtime sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the state Republicans’ pre-Trump xenophobic crackdown on immigrants (exemplified by the since-reversed state law known as SB 1070) give people the impression that Arizona is an extremist state, a natural Trump bastion.
But that’s somewhat misleading, when you consider that Trump’s 2016 performance in the state lagged considerably behind Mitt Romney’s in 2012, John McCain’s in 2008, and George W. Bush’s in 2004. Moreover, the moderate establishment has been faring better in the populist/Tea Party vs. Chamber of Commerce/Country Club Republican civil war in Arizona than it has fared nationally, though it may simply be foreshadowing things to come. In the early days of the Trump administration, Arizona’s two GOP senators were often the only ones within the party showing any independence from the president. And for all the alarmist noise coming out of Washington about the border and immigrants, Arizona has the closest collaborative relationship with its Mexican counterpart of any US border state, and Arizona’s leaders are as concerned about investing in infrastructure to facilitate improved cross-border commerce as they are in security.
More moderate Democrats, for their part, have been doing well in Arizona, as evidenced by centrist Krysten Sinema’s pick-up of Jeff Flake’s Senate seat in 2018 (Flake had decided to retire). This is a state that seems to be looking for the type of consensus-achieving, pragmatic leaders that DC politics and social media bubbles are quick to dismiss these days.
President Trump loves Arizona, but it may be for the wrong reasons. Few places will give him a more raucous, affirming Trumpy crowd, but this is a vocal minority that feels aggrieved because its agenda has been waning in the state (the Senate leader who pushed for SB 1070 was ousted by a recall vote way back in 2011). However old the Trump show may be getting elsewhere in the country, it feels doubly tired in Arizona because it started here even before he got the leading part.
So the president comes often to Arizona frequently to recharge combative batteries and bask in the adoration of his base, instead of to win over centrist voters, and polls reflect the approach’s lack of wisdom. Trump was planning on making his sixth visit of this pandemic year to Arizona this week, but will now be represented by Vice President Mike Pence. Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris will be here later in the week, and the around-the-clock campaign advertising on Phoenix TV stations testify to the importance of this market to the national race.
Today is the deadline to register to vote in Arizona, the finish line for a massive effort to register more Hispanics, who tend to participate at lower rates in the political process (they represent 24% of the eligible voters in the state, but an estimated 17% of registered voters).
Polls have shown Joe Biden capturing anywhere from 57 to 65% of the Latino vote nationwide, hovering around the 60% mark in Arizona. To the exasperation of many Democratic activists, Trump may do no worse with Hispanics than he did in 2016, when he obtained 28% of their vote, though he certainly cannot aspire to the 44% share claimed by George W. Bush in 2004. As for Biden, reaching Barack Obama’s 2012 high water mark of 71% would also appear to be a stretch.
Latinos have significant representation among the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party (especially in California) and among conservative Republicans (see Florida), but the large swing vote within the diverse Latino vote will become ever more important, even as it is hard to characterize. Many Hispanics are more entrepreneurial than the population at large, they skew Catholic and are receptive to pro-family, traditional messaging – hence the historic GOP hope that these are Republicans-in-waiting. But polling over time has consistently shown that Hispanics are also more trusting of bigger government; and while they aren’t the single-issue voters the media and DC political types often portray them as, disparaging and racist rhetoric aimed at immigrants has obviously depressed their Republican alignment.
Hispanics across the United States, like most of their neighbors, aren’t looking to be part of a movement to make America this-or-that. Liberal pollsters doing focus groups have been surprised to find that a majority of Latino voters don’t like being referred to as “people of color” (and surveys show they don’t like being called “Latinx” by woke Anglos). Hispanics in Arizona want to be able to work hard to provide for their families, give their kids a great education, enjoy living in a fabulous setting with good climate, and trust their elected leaders to abide by, and enforce, laws that provide everyone with safe neighborhoods, the stability provided by the rule of law and property rights, and equality of opportunities for people of all backgrounds. Most Hispanics want a Goldilocks equilibrium of a competent government that provides a safety net in hard times, better schools, and more access to healthcare, without stifling entrepreneurship and individual autonomy by excessive taxation or mandates that impinge on health and education choices.
Competence and moderation are not galvanizing rallying cries among political activists, fundraisers, and social media influencers. But they’re galvanizing factors for Latino voters, which is why Donald Trump may be in for a rough time in Maricopa County and elsewhere. Competent, the president reminds us on a daily basis, he is not. His only hope is to convince voters in Arizona and other battleground states that Joe Biden is an even more dangerous extremist than he is, a Socialist out to threaten their hard-earned living, their neighborhood’s safety, their freedom to worship, and so on. It’s all Trump has left to run on, and unfortunately for him, it’s all nonsense.
Moderate Democrats united back in early March (admittedly it does feel like 58 years ago) behind Joe Biden specifically to beat back the left-wing factions within the party, and if Biden and Harris aren’t shy about reminding us all of that in coming weeks, they will likely carry Maricopa County, Arizona, and a great deal more.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz