Campaign

How fast population growth made Arizona a swing state

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Four fathers watched their young children race around a playground on a recent Saturday morning, before the temperature broke triple digits. Three of them had moved to Arizona within the past year. The fourth, the grizzled veteran of the bunch, dispensed park, restaurant and soccer league advice. He had been here for two years.

For decades, Arizona has been one of the fastest growing states in the nation. Now, as new developments spring up seemingly overnight in the Phoenix metropolitan area's increasingly sprawling suburbs, the type of people who are moving to the Valley of the Sun has changed dramatically. 

What was once a destination for West Coast and Midwestern retirees is now an attractive housing and job market for younger workers, lured by the thriving tech industry springing up around the Loop 101 that encircles Phoenix.

"Twenty years ago, most people came to Arizona to retire. Then in the early 2000s you started to see a shift," said Chad Campbell, a Democratic former state House minority leader. "We've had a huge influx of new residents in Arizona, not just in Phoenix but in the Prescott Valley and Pima and Tucson."

Those younger residents have changed the political calculus in a state long dominated by conservative Republicans. Just eight years ago, there were 170,000 more registered Republicans than registered Democrats. Today, Republican voters outnumber Democrats by fewer than 100,000.

Phoenix was once the largest major city in America led by a Republican mayor. Today, Democrats hold a majority on the City Council, and Democratic candidates have won nonpartisan races for City Council seats in Mesa. Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Glendale and Tempe.

"Republicans had a margin of error. We used to be able to screw up" and still win, said Chris Tolino, a GOP strategist here. "Republicans aren't used to playing on a level playing field."

Arizona has 4 million registered voters today, up about 900,000 since 2012. The state expects to add a new congressional district in the next round of reapportionment, following this year's census.

"I've had three or four major 55-and-over communities be constructed, and they're only about half done, each of them," said state Rep. T.J. Shope (R), who is running for a state Senate seat this year. The Democratic growth "is really led by white progressives who are younger in the working age." 

Closing the registration gap helped Democrats make substantial gains in the 2018 midterm elections, when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) became the state's first Democratic senator in a generation. Democrats hold five of Arizona's nine seats in the House, and Democrat Mark Kelly leads Sen. Martha McSally (R) in a special election for what was once the late Sen. John McCain's (R) seat.

Arizona's electoral votes now sit at the center of the battle for the White House, as both President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden pour millions into television advertisements in the Phoenix and Tucson media markets. Trump, Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence all visited the Phoenix metro area last week.

Four years ago, Trump won Arizona's 11 electoral votes with just 48 percent of the vote, the lowest vote share for a Republican candidate since Bob Dole lost the state in 1996.

This year, polls show Biden leading. Seven public surveys conducted in September show Biden ahead by 2 to 10 points; Biden topped 50 percent support in two of those polls. Biden leads by substantial margins among white voters with a college degree and among voters in the Phoenix area, home to about two-thirds of Arizona's voters.

"The suburbs have shifted away from the GOP since Trump was elected," said Mike Noble, a pollster at OH Predictive Insights whose most recent survey showed Biden leading 52 percent to 42 percent. "Trump, we know, doesn't do as well with folks with a college degree or higher."

Biden's campaign has rolled out a long list of prominent Republican backers, including former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), former state Attorney General Grant Woods (R) and several prominent former McCain aides. Biden's team is making a special play for Mormon voters, who make up about 6 percent of the population and who play a disproportionately large role in state politics.

"We're just brought up in a culture of more humility, and a brash, reality TV star from New York who pretended to be his own publicist and all the stories about him ... that's not our kind of guy," said Bob Worsley, a former Republican state senator who backs Biden.

While the Biden campaign ramps up here, the Trump campaign has never left. Republicans have 80 paid staff on the ground, and the campaign has contacted more than 5.3 million voters in the last few years, said Rick Gorka, a campaign spokesman.

"This is still a red state until it's not, and that's why it's been a high priority for the campaign to invest the resources to keep it in our column," Gorka said. "It's always going to be on the radar."

Both campaigns will spend most of their time chasing ballots in a state with a long history of absentee and mail-in voting. Three-quarters of Arizona voters cast a vote early or by mail in 2016, the highest rate of any state that does not conduct elections entirely by mail.

But for the first time in modern memory, Democrats have a model to follow to build their own path to victory.

"Sen. Sinema, she had a coalition of Democratic voters combined with suburban college educated Republican and independent women, and that is still the winning pathway here in Arizona, combined with that new population. It's going to be the Biden pathway to victory," Campbell said. "We're still a purple state, but we're trending Democratic."

Outbrain