Which will be the harder fought conflict in Arizona this year: the fierce battle between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s Republican primary, or the duel between the eventual GOP nominee and President Obama? At first glance, it’s not an easy question to answer.
Arizona’s seismic demographic transformation is slowly turning a once deep-red state if not blue, then at least purple. In the past decade alone, Arizona added 600,000 Latinos to its population, according to the Census Bureau. The 46 percent growth rate in the Latino population accounted for half the state’s overall increase. In 2010, Hispanics were 30 percent of Arizona’s total population—an ominous trend for Republicans, because Hispanics vote nearly 2-to-1 nationally for Democrats. President Obama’s allies brag, in fact, that they could have won the state in 2008 if Arizona’s favorite son, Sen. John McCain, hadn’t been his opponent. As it was, Democrats kept McCain’s margin to single digits.
That helps explain why the Obama reelection campaign boasts about its hopes for the state. “People said last time, ‘Oh, you can’t win Virginia,’ until we did,” campaign manager Jim Messina told local volunteers last week, according to The Arizona Republic. “ ‘You can’t win Florida,’ until we did. ‘You can never win North Carolina,’ until we did. And so a whole bunch of people are saying, ‘Can he win Arizona?’ Can he not win Arizona?”
A closer examination reveals, however, that if the underlying trend might soon transform Arizona into a winnable presidential battleground, it won’t happen in 2012. The voters there aren’t as favorable for Obama as those in Colorado, Nevada, or New Mexico—three other Southwestern states that his campaign is counting on.
Although it remains possible that Obama could take Arizona if he wins nationally by a margin equal to or greater than his commanding 53 percent victory four years ago, in the more likely scenario of a close election, he stands a far better chance elsewhere. “It’s an old saw that if the Democrat wins in Arizona, he didn’t need Arizona,” said Michael O’Neil, a nonpartisan analyst based in Tempe, Ariz. “If he’s getting 330 electoral votes, Arizona could be among them. But what’s the likelihood Arizona would put him over 270?”
Arizona’s burgeoning Latino population, however, is the only trend pushing the state to the left. Obama’s attractiveness to Hispanic voters is a crucial plank of his reelection strategy, but he also needs other groups of voters to build a successful coalition. As yet, they simply don’t exist in Arizona.
Compare Arizona to Nevada, for instance: The two states had roughly the same Hispanic turnout in the 2008 presidential election (16 percent in Arizona; 15 percent in Nevada). The difference was that Nevada’s minority vote, thanks to significantly higher African-American turnout, was much larger overall, 31 percent compared with 26 percent in Arizona.
Colorado, another state that Obama won in 2008 and that is central to his reelection strategy, demonstrates another way that Arizona falls short demographically. Like Arizona, Colorado’s black vote accounted for only 4 percent of its total last time, according to exit polls, and Latinos accounted for an even smaller share than in Arizona. But the Rocky Mountain State has a sizable white, college-educated population that constituted 49 percent of its electorate and voted overwhelmingly (56 percent) for Obama. But college-educated voters made up just 38 percent of Arizona’s electorate; blue-collar whites, among the toughest groups for the president, had a greater influence.
Obama can count on the Grand Canyon State’s demographics moving in his favor, but it won’t be enough, according to Ruy Teixeira, a demographic expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. “The nature of the white population there and the level of minority vote just isn’t the right formula right now,” he said.
Teixeira, who coauthored a paper with John Halpin last year that assessed how demographic changes would benefit Obama in 2012, said that Arizona was in a class with other fringe states—such as Georgia, Indiana, and Missouri—that the president can hope to win only if he steamrolls the GOP nominee.
Still, Arizona Democrats have some small reason for optimism: The state has voted for only one Democratic president since Harry Truman—Bill Clinton in 1996—but in 2006, it overwhelmingly elected Democrat Janet Napolitano as governor\. From 2006 to 2010, a majority of its congressional delegation was Democratic. Even if Arizona features some marquee conservative figures, such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Gov. Jan Brewer, who are vociferous foes of illegal immigration, Democrats argue that the state remains close to the political middle.
The state Legislature’s 2010 passage of a controversial anti-illegal-immigration measure—which won big support among whites but alienated many Hispanics, who saw it as racial profiling—could “galvanize” the minority community, said Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic strategist. “Many in the Latino community take it as a betrayal of what the Republican establishment thinks about them,” he said.
Perhaps, but to exact revenge on a grand scale, they might have to wait until 2016.
This article appears in the February 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.