In accordance with our Western focus, we will be moving southeast from Nevada to Arizona, the Grand Canyon State. Unlike Nevada, Arizona is not traditionally thought of as a battleground state. It has only voted for a Democrat once since 1952. And up until 2016, the lowest margin that a Republican had won the state with—without a major third-party candidate—was 6.3% in 2000. Even more interesting is the fact that no Democrat has reached 47% of the vote, since 1952. Former Vice President Joe Biden will certainly have to break that threshold if he even wants to be considered a contender in Arizona this time around, especially given the lack of strong, well-known third-party alternatives.
Recent Election History and Trends:
Democrats are not without reason in feeling optimistic about Arizona. In 2018, Arizona elected Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to the United States Senate by a 2.4-point margin, an impressive feat given that President Donald Trump had a net approval of +2 statewide. However, Sinema’s ascension to the Senate was the result of her being a moderate, not a doctrinaire Democrat—she had voted in line with Trump’s positions nearly 63% of the time when she was a representative for Arizona’s ninth congressional district. Exit polls show that Sinema’s Blue Dog Democrat voting record in the 115th Congress and her Mormon background helped her peel off 16% of the Republican women vote, according to exit polls.
Although Republican Doug Ducey won the gubernatorial election by 14.2 points that same year, he ran against Democrat David Garcia, a supporter of Medicare-for-All, which Biden has yet to endorse.
Thus, while Biden will almost certainly not win as many votes from Republican women as Sinema, his performance will be closer to that of Sinema than Garcia. Additionally, Biden is benefited by the fact that once-popular Governor Ducey’s approval ratings recently dropped to the 30s, the consequence of Arizona’s spike in COVID cases and deaths in June/July. Lastly, most polling averages have Biden leading by 2-3% right now, despite the fact that polls have largely skewed Republican in recent cycles in Arizona.
On the other hand, there are many other metrics that can be used by Republicans to support the conclusion that they are likely to win Arizona. First, turnout for the 2020 local election primaries on the Republican side was nearly equal to that on the Democratic side. In a state with 130,454 more registered Republicans than Democrats, that is a good sign for Republicans. Furthermore, Trump is vastly outperforming 2018 Republican nominee Martha McSally amongst independents, adding fuel to the argument that McSally’s loss in 2018 and probable loss in 2020 looks like it was mostly due to her being a poor candidate, rather than a massive shift away from the Republican Party in Arizona. Lastly, the early and absentee vote data from TargetSmart, a liberal firm, has registered Democrats with a slim 0.3% advantage over registered Republicans in the early vote with 95.6% of the 2016 vote in. Since Arizona has a roughly 19% increase in its registered voter pool, it is reasonable to expect 26.9% of the 2016 vote or roughly 2/9 of the total vote to occur on Election Day. Given that polls ranging from Emerson to CNN expect Republicans to outvote Democrats by roughly 20% on election day, this suggests that Republicans will have roughly a 4-4.5% registration advantage once all the votes are tallied. So, as long as Trump doesn’t lose independents by 8% or more (which McSally did not even manage to do in 2018) and doesn’t lose Republican voters to Democrats in the same way McSally did, he is favored to defeat Biden in Arizona today.
Regardless of which narrative one prefers, it does appear to be the case that the margin of victory by either side in Arizona will certainly be less than 5% and probably less than 3%. Next, we shall analyze Arizona by county to see where each party’s gain and losses within the state are likely to come from.
Maricopa and Pima Counties, Biden’s Best Shot:
Like Nevada, there are relatively few counties to analyze and a significant proportion of the vote comes from two counties: Maricopa and Pima Counties, where the state’s two largest cities of Phoenix and Tucson are respectively located. Simple data analysis makes it very clear that the situation looks better for Democrats in Maricopa and Pima, relative to 2016. According to voter registration data, the net registration advantage for Republicans over Democrats in Maricopa County went from 162,568 out of 2,056,458 voters in the August 2016 local primaries to 149,799 out of 2,161,716 voters by the general election. Similarly, in 2018, the Republican registration advantage in Maricopa County went from 140,978 out of 2,229,718 voters in the August 2018 local primaries to 129,240 out of 2,254,596 voters by November 2018, foreshadowing a shift towards the Democrats in Maricopa County, which led to Sinema’s four-point victory in the county.
However, the Republican registration advantage in Maricopa County increased from 84,539 out of 2,431,029 voters in the August 2020 local primaries to 100,884 out of 2,595,272 voters in the latest report. In short, while the Republican registration advantage in Maricopa County has decreased by a decent amount since 2016, Republicans gained a significant advantage with recent registrants, who are naturally more likely to vote in the upcoming election for the party they register as.
Therefore, despite McSally losing Maricopa County by four points with a higher Republican registration advantage, Trump should be able to funnel the extra enthusiasm and energy of new registrants to narrowly carry Maricopa County by a one- or two-point margin this cycle, which would be comparable but slightly lower than his 2016 margin of 2.8 points (which closely matched his 3.5-point winning margin statewide).
However, despite the good news Republicans may receive from Maricopa County, there is essentially nothing but good news for Democrats in Pima County. In 2016, the net registration advantage for Democrats over Republicans in Pima County went from 36,390 out of 509,310 in the August 2016 local primaries to 43,374 out of 544,270 voters by the general election. Similarly, in the midterms, the Republican registration advantage in Pima County went from 43,237 out of 524,980 voters in the August 2018 local primaries to 49,079 out of 557,532 voters by November 2018. Most recently, the Democratic registration advantage in Maricopa County increased from 58,994 out of 584,070 voters in the August 2020 local primaries to 71,732 out of 638,335 voters before this upcoming general election. Considering that Pima County went for Hillary Clinton 54.3%-40.5% margin and for Sinema 56.7%-41.1%, who represented part of Pima County in Arizona’s ninth congressional district, it is expected that Trump will perform poorly in Pima County, likely losing by roughly a 20% margin.
Based on the predictions I gave for each of the two biggest counties in Arizona, Biden will be able to peel off 15,000 to 20,000 votes from Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in Maricopa County. Biden should also be able to add 35,000 to 40,000 votes to his 2016 margin of victory in Pima County. That makes up 50,000 to 60,000 votes, which is just more than half of Trump’s 2016 margin statewide. However, the Democrats’ fortunes start to weaken in the state’s more exurban and rural counties.
Will Rural Arizonans Save the Day?
To illustrate the Democrats’ weakness in rural Arizona, there are perhaps no better counties than Yavapai and Mohave Counties. Located in northwest Arizona, Trump carried Mohave and Yavapai counties by 51.6 points and 31.2 points, respectively. His Yavapai margin exceeded that of any Republican since Reagan’s 1984 re-election bid, and his Mohave margin was the largest for a Republican in history.
In 2016, the net registration advantage for Republican over Democrats in Yavapai County went from 31,548 out of 130,335 in the local primaries to 33,283 out of 137,390 voters by the general election. This increased Republican advantage foreshadowed Trump’s solid performance in the county. Similarly, in 2018, the net registration advantage for Republican over Democrats in Yavapai County went from 35,383 out of 136,470 in the local primaries to 36,418 out of 140,724 voters by the general election. These trends helped Ducey defeat Garcia in the county by 38.7 points. However, they did not ultimately transfer into the McSally-Sinema race, since McSally ultimately only carried Yavapai County by 23.2 points (eight points below Trump’s margin).
Given 2020 voter registration data from Yavapai County, this is one of the few counties in Arizona where one would expect Trump’s margin of victory to be closer to Ducey’s than McSally’s. In that data, the net registration advantage for Republican over Democrats in Yavapai County went from 39,118 out of 149,903 in the local primaries to 44,986 out of 165,361 voters, by the general election.
The story in Mohave County is even more pronounced in the Republicans’ favor. In 2016, the net registration advantage for Republicans over Democrats in Mohave County went from 28,514 out of 109,616 in the local primaries to 29,833 out of 115,339 voters by the general election. In 2020, the trend of 2016 is much stronger. The net registration advantage for Republicans over Democrats in Mohave County went from 43,661 out of 127,522 in the local primaries to 48,662 out of 135,180 voters by the general election. Given its location, this massive increase in Republican registration could be the result of conservatives moving to Arizona, after becoming disenchanted with Southern California’s progressive policies. The increase in Republican registration could also be the result of general trends towards the Republican Party in exurban and rural areas. In short, these two exurban/rural counties should move even further in Trump’s favor in 2020.
Given recent Arizona trends and the more Republican-leaning nature of independents outside of Arizona’s two major counties, Trump is likely to gain roughly 35,000 to 45,000 votes—despite the Democrats’ advantages in Maricopa and Pima Counties. This suggests that Trump will have a net loss of anywhere between 5,000 to 25,000 (relative to 2016), which would result in a roughly 66,000 to 86,000 vote victory for the incumbent president.
Given that there will likely be roughly 3.1 million votes cast, this would represent a margin of victory of 2.1 to 2.8 points for Trump.