Obama campaign bullish on Arizona, but experts say odds long
Since the days of Harry S. Truman, only one Democratic presidential candidate has won in Arizona: Bill Clinton, seeking a second term in 1996.
But despite the state’s reputation as a GOP bastion and Mitt Romney’s advantages here, including appealing to the sizable Mormon population, President Barack Obama’s campaign is suggesting that it can win Arizona in November.
“We think we have a real shot at winning the presidential race here in Arizona,” Vice President Joe Biden said at a fundraiser in Phoenix last week, adding that campaign organizers will set up operations here.
So is this standard election-year posturing or a claim grounded in political reality?
According to experts on Arizona politics, an Obama win is possible but depends in large part to the answers to two questions:
QUESTION ONE: Which way will political independents lean?
A poll released Monday by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy suggests that the presidential race is a statistical dead heat in Arizona. Independents appear to break slightly for Obama over Romney, but 34 percent of independents were undecided, the poll showed.
About one-third of Arizona’s registered voters aren’t affiliated with either major party.
“That group will probably decide who wins Arizona, depending on what way they go,” said David Daugherty, the institute’s director of research. “The Republicans will vote for the Republicans, the Democrats will vote for the Democrats, so it’s really a battle over who can convince the independents.”
By electing and re-electing former Gov. Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard, for example, Democrats have shown they can win statewide elections by appealing to independent voters.
In many ways, experts say, whether or not Obama can follow suit depends on how the state’s economy is doing come November after years of deep recession, high unemployment and plunging home values.
Bruce Merrill, a political scientist who conducted the Morrison Institute’s poll, said the Obama campaign still has a long road ahead to win Arizona, in part because the president would likely struggle if the economy remains in the doldrums.
“A lot can happen between now and November, particularly with the economy,” he said. “So it’s just really too early to say, but if the election were held today I don’t think Obama would win.”
Daugherty said the economy likely will sway the election.
“If the economy improves, it tends to favor the party in power,” he said. “So the Obama campaign stands to gain from an improved economy.”
Merrill said Arizona voters may blame Obama for the weak economy, even though he said it’s not fair to do so.
“The president is like a college quarterback,” Merrill said. “When things go well the president gets a pat on the back, but when things go bad the president’s to blame.”
Zack A. Smith, regents’ professor in Northern Arizona University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs, said Obama could make inroads among Arizona’s independent voters by continuing to cast Romney as flip-flopping on issues.
“Romney has been on both sides of a lot of issues, and going after Romney will certainly help draw in some independents,” he said. “I don’t know how effective it’ll be.”
QUESTION TWO: Will Latino voters turn out?
Independent of SB 1070, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration crackdowns, immigration-reform proposals and other issues that have captured national attention, experts said a key for Obama is whether Latinos will turn out and which issues are most important to those who vote.
Latinos account for about 30 percent of Arizona’s population, but because many are too young to vote they make up a smaller share of the state’s 3.2 million registered voters. According to the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan research group focusing on Latinos, 14.3 percent of Arizona’s registered voters were Latino in 2008 and accounted for 11.7 percent of the overall turnout.
Merrill said Democrats have put considerable effort toward registering Latinos but have yet to be rewarded in terms of turnout.
“Hispanics tend to vote 75 percent Democratic, and so it’s very important, particularly in Arizona, where you have a growing Hispanic population,” he said.
Merrill said concerns about the GOP’s “very sharp and critical” stance toward illegal immigration should help Obama among Latinos and could increase Latino turnout in November.
“My guess is that with the DREAM Act and all the stuff that’s gone on with Joe Arpaio, there will probably be a little more interest in the Hispanic community this time than normal,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be massive or enough to really be a major factor in how the election turns out.”
Meanwhile, Merrill said, the top issue among Hispanics may well be what it is for other Arizonans.
“In general, the economy is still the biggest issue within the
Hispanic community,” he said. “As a group, Hispanics are … hit harder by the recession.”
Richard Herrera, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said the Obama campaign is more optimistic about Arizona than it might otherwise be because Richard Carmona, a former surgeon general who is of Puerto Rican descent, is running for U.S. Senate here.
“They think that that will turn out a large number of Latinos, which only helps them,” Herrera said. “So if it were a different candidate, they might not think Arizona was in play.”