Arizona is a Republican-leaning state, so why is it a battleground in 2020? Is it now a swing state? Not yet. While President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE’s unpopularity has energized Democratic-leaning groups in Arizona, giving Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE an edge in the polls, it is not clear that those groups will tilt so strongly toward the Democrats in a post-Trump political environment.
Let me be clear on what I mean by “swing state.” Swing states are battlegrounds for several presidential election cycles, decided by less than five percentage points in most presidential elections. They often tilt toward the national election winner, and frequently “swing” between parties. By that definition, Arizona is not a swing state. Out of the prior eight elections in Arizona, only two were decided by five percentage points or less (1996, 2016). Arizona’s choice for president was the national vote winner only twice since 1992 (in 1996 and 2004). The only winning Democrat in the last 40 years was Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBusiness coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees Biden nominates ex-State Department official as Export-Import Bank leader Obamas, Bushes and Clintons joining new effort to help Afghan refugees MORE in 1996, who won by 2 percent in a three-way race against Bob Dole and Ross Perot. Prior to 1996, the last Democrat to win in Arizona was Harry Truman in 1948.
That being said, Arizona is a battleground state this year. Several reliable polls recently showed Biden with a narrow but stable edge in the presidential race. Democratic Senate challenger Mark Kelly holds a solid lead over Republican Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster MORE. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won a Senate seat over McSally by about 2 and a half percent of the vote, in 2018. In 2016, Donald Trump only won Arizona by less than 4 percentage points.
What seems to be happening is that Donald Trump’s presidency has accelerated Arizona’s shift toward a more permanent swing state status. Democratic voter registration has surged during the last four years. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats, but among the over 400,000 new registered Arizona voters since 2016, only 37.5 percent registered as Republicans, while over 50 percent registered as Democrats.
Another factor is the growing proportion of college-educated white voters in the population and how they have drifted toward the Democrats. In 2012, college graduates favored Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Democrats aim for maximum pressure on GOP over debt ceiling MORE by 14 points. But in 2016, Trump and Clinton evenly split college graduates, even though Trump won 6 percent more white college graduates. In the 2018 Senate race, Kyrsten Sinema outperformed Clinton, with a 10-point edge over McSally among white college graduates. If Biden can maintain most of his current 15-point lead with college-educated whites, he may win the state.
The gender gap favoring Democrats has been around since the 1980s, and has grown in the Trump years. Women in Arizona favored Obama by 6 points over Romney in 2012 and favored Clinton by 4 points against Trump. But Biden’s lead among women in 2020 is an astounding 12-point margin in Arizona. Will his lead last?
Maybe, if you also consider Gen Z and millennial women. In 2016 exit polling, 53 percent of voters under age 30 voted for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE, 11 percent voted for one of the third party candidates, and only 35 percent voted for Trump. Among the youth, women favored Clinton even more, and did the same in 2018. This year, 66 percent of likely voters under 30 support Biden, compared to only 25 percent for Trump. Of course, turnout among young voters is usually lower than turnout with the older voters who tend to support Trump. If Biden can motivate young Arizonans to turn out and vote, he should do very well in November.
Latino voters are the key to Democrats’ hopes for future competitiveness in Arizona. Unfortunately for Democrats Latinos do not turn out to vote in proportion to their growing size in the voting eligible population. The Latino share of Arizona’s population has increased from 25 percent in 2000 to almost 32 percent now, but were only 15 percent of the voters in 2016. Latinos favored Clinton in 2016 by 30 points, and the polling says they favor Biden by about the same amount now. According to the Census, Latino turnout went from 40 percent turnout in 2012, to 47 percent in 2016, to almost 49 percent in 2018. If this trend continues another four years after Trump eventually leaves office, the Democrats should be able to keep future presidential races close in Arizona.
Is Arizona a purple state? Not yet, but Trump certainly has put Arizona on the fast track to swing state status.
Scott McLean is professor of political science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.