Forget the Grand Canyon, the snow birds, the Navajo Nation, the golf courses, spring break at Lake Havasu, Monument Valley, and earth’s largest grove of ponderosa pine trees. Until election day, the marvel to behold in Arizona is its politics. Had the Republican Party nominated Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, or John Kasich, or Rand Paul, Arizona would almost certainly be a safe state for the GOP. Barack Obama lost it twice. John Kerry and Al Gore lost it too. Save for 1996, when Bill Clinton narrowly carried the state against Bob Dole (with spoiler Ross Perot claiming 8 percent of the vote), Democrats haven’t won in Arizona since 1948.
But political observers have long believed that Arizona will eventually turn blue, like California, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico before it. It will happen if politically conservative retirees continue to die at the usual pace and Hispanics and millennials keep favoring Democrats as they expand their share of the electorate.
That’s why Democratic operatives in Arizona have long urged their colleagues at the DNC to allocate resources for registering Hispanics and youth, believing that spending money to boost the voter pool and turnout would hasten the GOP’s decline. But in recent cycles, there have been more attractive places to invest. For Barack Obama, a state with so few African Americans was the wrong long shot to prioritize—particularly with its longtime senator, John McCain, running during the 2008 cycle, and Mitt Romney doing predictably well in northern Arizona’s Mormon enclaves in 2012. What’s more, the state is divided into relatively safe congressional districts, so local Democrats have never had great “get out the vote” operations.
Then in the summer of 2016, Republicans nominated a man who insulted and antagonized Hispanic voters, especially those of Mexican ancestry, as much as any politician in memory––and whose crude immorality Mormon voters disdain. An initiative on marijuana legalization made the fall ballot, a question that might increase turnout among both Mormons and millennials. Another ballot initiative would increase the minimum wage, pulling union voters to the polls. And Maricopa County, easily the most populous in the state, would decide whether to reelect Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a polarizing lawman who is particularly loathed by Hispanics and Democrats.
The calculus shifted.
In October, when data geeks at a financial-advice website set out to discover where an individual vote for president matters most in 2016, factoring in each state’s adult population, its electoral votes, and the degree to which it is up for grabs, rather than “safe” for Republicans or Democrats, they found that the state where a person could expect his or her vote to have the most effect, by a wide margin, was Arizona. It has 3.588 million registered voters. They will confer 11 electoral votes. And last month, each candidate hovered around a 50 percent chance of victory.
That’s what drew me to the state. I wanted to talk to these newly relevant voters as they weighed a decision that could affect the fate of the whole country—and the future of their newly relevant state. Its basketball team won’t win an NBA title this year. Its border militias won’t stop the drug trade. The chakras will not all align at the Sedona Yoga Festival. And Wile E. Coyote will not catch the Roadrunner. But Democrats just might turn Arizona blue, if young people and minorities turn out.
The most populous city in the U.S. is New York. Then Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia. The sixth-biggest city in America, the one almost no one includes when asked to name the top ten, is Phoenix. Even in Los Angeles, where one can drive to Phoenix as easily as San Francisco or San Diego or Las Vegas, the state capital is often overlooked. And the desolate landscapes that Arizona conjures, the vast expanses of desert beside I-10 when approaching from east or west, make it easy to forget that urban politics rule there. “More than three-quarters of voters are in just two metro areas,” Politico notes,“Phoenix and Tuscon.”
Matt Berger was born and raised in Phoenix. The 29-year-old belongs to a demographic that Republicans hope to win: He is a white, male, small-business owner; and his business, Butt-Out, is a vape shop that sells proprietary liquid for e-cigarettes, an industry that some paternalistic Democrats want to regulate out of existence.
That frustrates Berger as an entrepreneur and as someone who successfully quit his own pack-a-day cigarette-smoking habit by switching to vaping. He’s witnessed many smokers follow the same trajectory, kicking a potentially deadly addiction, only to find vaping entrepreneurs like him compared to tobacco executives by those who’d destroy their livelihood. He doesn’t mind local rules. He’s always taken care to keep his product from minors. But federal regulators scare him.
“There are a lot of shops. Some of them are starting to close. My shop is still doing well. I’m making money, I have 9 employees, and I pay them well—actually, I just gave them a raise,” he said. “But I could be out of business in two years. That’s how I’m thinking, because I’m a manufacturer. We produce our own e-liquid in all different varieties and flavors. It’s distinctive and we’re proud of it. That’s how I make my profit, how I make my money. And from what I’ve read and heard, the federal government, the FDA, is talking about it costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to get each variety approved. I don’t have that that kind of money for one flavor, let alone the 500 product variants that I have. Even if it’s $10,000, or $1,000, you’re getting up to where I’d have to get a loan and cash out all my savings.”
In Arizona’s primary, Berger, a registered Republican who calls himself a moderate, voted for Donald Trump, in part because he is averse to the religious right, and felt that Ted Cruz was too close to that faction for his tastes. “People are entitled to their religious beliefs, but the instant you try to control how other people live their life, I don’t like that,” he explained. He was vaguely aware of Trump’s polarizing rhetoric early in the campaign, but assumed the candidate was putting on an act to get attention and would moderate, as politicians do, for the general election.
Now he regrets his faulty assumption.
“Here we are,” he told me. “You can’t demonize groups of people. There are different countries and cultures in this world that have troubles, believe me, but you can’t make it so that they’re all monsters. So I don’t like that. I don’t like that he picked Mike Pence as his running mate either. Pence is extremely socially conservative. In terms of what he personally believes, I don’t care about that, but if he had his way, then a lot of my friends would be sent to pray-the-gay-away camps.” As the general-election campaign wore on with Trump doubling down on his rhetoric, Berger increasingly thought of his friends, acquaintances, and customers.
“Look, it’s not like I cater to one type of person. In a day at my shop, I’ll have an ex-military guy, a biker, an artist, a gay dude, a transgender person, a black guy, and a Hispanic guy. Everybody’s chill. The cops are cool, too. That’s why I love living here,” he said. “I have a shop downtown. People are trying to support local businesses and create a community. Arizona gets type cast as the wild west or old racist people, and that’s frustrating to me. There’s pockets everywhere where you have ignorance and hate. Maybe everybody has a little bit of xenophobia. But you get over it by realizing that there’s not ‘the Mexicans,’ ‘the blacks,’ ‘the gays,’ each group is made up of millions of individuals, so you’re going to have mostly great people.” The GOP ticket lost him. He intends to vote for Clinton on election day.
In the course of an hour I heard the same from a waitress, a hotel clerk, and an Uber driver—all white, all under 35, and all unwilling to support a candidate who had attacked Hispanics, Muslims and women. The driver took me across the Salt River into Tempe, home to Arizona State’s main campus, where I wandered the strip of crowded bars alongside totally wasted college students and police officers on horseback.
Jason Enriquez stood at the end of one of those long lines that men wait in at crowded bars on Saturday nights as women skip to the front. He said that there are a few Trump supporters in his ASU classes who wear red “Make America Great Again” hats, and that many of his acquaintances are Bernie Sanders supporters who lost interest in politics and wouldn’t necessarily vote on election day. “I have to vote the lesser of two evils, so I’m voting for Hillary,” he said. “Trump is a scumbag. He says Mexico sends rapists and murderers over here. I’m Mexican. I’m not a rapist or a killer. I’m an engineering student! I’m here to learn just like everyone else. Right now I’m researching this thermoelectric polymer that generates energy from body heat. I’m really interested in renewable energy. So fuck him. He didn’t grow up around the culture. He doesn’t know what it’s like.”
A few paces away, I met a couple with divided allegiances. He was in a frat, and wore an Arizona State jersey, a backward baseball cap, tight khaki shorts, and leather loafers. “I think Hillary is more qualified, she has the temperament and experience and I just have a lot of trust in her,” he said. “Most of my friends are for Trump, just because they’re Republicans, and I respect that, but I just disagree.”
He glanced pointedly at his girlfriend, who wore a black dress and heels and spoke in a drunkenly earnest, words-slightly-slurred way. “I’m a Republican. And I do not want either candidate. I’m just voting for the best in the situation,” she explained. “There’s nothing about Trump that makes me want to vote for him. But I’m a true Republican at heart, that’s how I am, and voting for Hillary will just… it’s not anything specific against her, but I’m a Republican. Cruz was my guy.”
Like many voters, her family background shaped her partisan identity. She’d no sooner change it than the football team that she sat cheering for with her dad as a toddler. “My family is a huge part of everything,” she said. “Other people think that they’re getting all this shit for free. And I’m sorry that you’re not part of the whatever percentage that it comes from, but some of us are, and my dad worked hard for his job, he worked hard to provide for us, and that shouldn’t mean that he has to provide for everybody else, too, because he worked hard for where he is right now.”
Taxes are “a fat majority of why I’m voting for Trump,” she said. “I do not want Trump to be my president. Goddamnit, I don’t want him to be my president! But I am a Republican at heart, and that’s who I’ll vote for at heart. Trump, we get it, he’s a big, fat dick. But if you’re a Republican you’ve got to fight for what matters. And I don’t think that what he says is 100 percent true. Is he going to build a fat wall? No. I mean, I don’t know. But I am a Republican and those are the beliefs I stand for and if someone wants to call me a racist or prejudiced that’s just as ignorant as me saying I’m voting for Trump. So if you want to attack me personally, that’s fine. But I do stand for the beliefs I stand for. That does not mean I want Trump, that does not mean I’m prejudiced. The way people say if you want Trump you’re a racist piece of shit, I’m not. All I hear is you want Trump, you’re racist.”
In a couple hours of wandering and chatting with young people, all the Trump voters I met made it clear that they didn’t much like him, or take him particularly seriously. Trump was a living indictment of a political system they disliked or an opportunity to see absurdity and chaos play out on a grand scale or a guy with an R by his name. Clinton voters all described her as the lesser of two evils, save the frat guy and an ASU law student. “I think Hillary Clinton is a competent person who takes pragmatic positions on difficult issues and has dedicated her entire life to public service,” he said. “I’m happy to vote for her. I think she’ll make a good president.”
The trip from Phoenix to Tuscon takes two hours on the eastbound interstate, most of it traversing empty desert. I made the drive on a Sunday, during a monsoon, in hopes that the weather would clear for an afternoon baseball game, where I ‘d ask fans of America’s pastime for their thoughts on the election.
The doubleheader was held at Kino Veteran’s Memorial Stadium.
The four teams: Naranjeros de Hermasillo, Yaquis de Obregon, Aguilas de Mexicali, and the Kansas City Royals Future Stars. I stood in line for $10 tickets surrounded by families eager to take in a game or two, made my way into the stadium as the storm cleared, and found a microcosm of the American melting pot. There were fathers lined up with sons at concession stands, but instead of hot dogs and iced cream sandwiches, patrons bought tacos and churros. A cashier took their money across a table covered in a brightly colored Mexican tablecloth, and in place of ketchup a condiment bar offered Tapatio, lime wedges, and pickled jalapeños.
The crowd was overwhelmingly Mexican and Mexican American, and true to the data showing that Hispanics in Arizona participate in politics less frequently than their neighbors, they were more disconnected from the election than any other group I encountered. One man, who sat in the stands with his wife and three young children, explained to me in Spanish that he would like to ignore politics as he had during the last two presidential cycles, since it never seemed to make any difference in his life anyway, but that Trump made that harder in a way I kept missing. My Spanish is quite rusty, so he kept repeating himself with what I took to be figurate language, saying that his family just wanted to live and work and watch baseball, but then Trump just popped up out of nowhere and frightened his kids.
“I don’t know how to explain that to them,” he said.
Only later, when I spoke to Zuhaila Orozco, a young woman in her 20s, at a phone-charging station, did I finally grasp that the father wasn’t speaking figuratively. The previous night at the stadium, during another double-header featuring Mexican league teams, a man in the stands popped up out of his seat, donned a Donald Trump mask, and started making a scene that Orozco captured on her cell phone. The brief clip shows him gesturing provocatively and mocking one team, knowing Trump would be a hated figure in the stadium and stoke maximum upset. He was such a distraction that security ultimately kicked him out. That spectacle was what the father I spoke to had trouble explaining to his kids.
After the game, wandering through heavily Hispanic neighborhoods in south Tuscon, I came to see the incident as an illustration of how many I spoke to felt about Trump. They’d never been much interested in presidential politics before. Then, out of nowhere, this baffling figure suddenly started insulting them to get attention. For some, the aura of animus made them even more averse to politics. They couldn’t ever remember it being this bad, not at the presidential level. Barack Obama would never talk about them like that. Neither would George W. Bush.
If alienation or fear or disgust kept them away from the polls this year, it would only confirm a stereotype borne out by the data and even thrown in their faces by Republicans. “They don’t get out and vote,” former governor Jan Brewer said this year, explaining why she didn’t think Hispanics would flip Arizona. “They don’t vote."
For many Hispanic citizens, Trump has had the opposite effect.
I met Juan, a construction worker who declined to give his last name, outside a gas-station minimart, where he was hoping his scratch-off lottery tickets would be winners. “I’m anti-Trump. First of all he’s attacking our people, Hispanic people. Ladies too. I have three girls of my own,” he said. His two eldest daughters were 20 and 18. “They’re both going to vote. My wife and myself are voting too. Four out of five.”
He was encouraging his extended family to vote, too.
If Arizona turns blue this year, it will be in part because people who oppose Trump and support Clinton, Hispanic and otherwise, help to turn out family and friends.
In bygone years, that sort of civic outreach, a prerequisite for the large voter turnout that benefits Democrats, has been especially lacking in the state. In fact, when civic participation in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., was ranked, Arizona consistently placed near the bottom across most categories. It ranked 51st, or dead last, in likelihood of attending a public meeting; 49th in frequently expressing political opinions online; 48th in working with a neighbor to fix something; 47th in belonging to an organization; 46th in contacting public officials; 45th in voting in Election 2012; 41st in discussing politics; and 39th in volunteering.
Due in part to a dearth of competitive districts, just 27 percent of Arizona’s registered voters cast ballots in the 2014 primary, the lowest turnout in over 50 years.
Nonvoters are often hesitant to talk politics, but I managed a few short conversations.
Four sorority sisters I met on the patio of a Mexican restaurant near the University of Arizona—all with blond hair of the identical shade—were registered to vote, but only one of them thought she would cast a ballot. When I approached their table, explained that I was a journalist, and asked what they thought about the choice between Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, they laughed at the very notion of me asking them the question, the way the staff of Paris Review or Sports Illustrated might react if I peeked my head in their offices and asked who they thought should win the next Fields Medal.
After knocking on the doors of roughly a thousand voters, the journalist Chris Hayes once observed that “undecided voters do care about politics; they just don’t enjoy politics.” People who like politics “read the paper and listen to political radio and talk about politics at parties… you view politics the way a lot of people view cooking or sports or opera: as a hobby.” But undecided voters “seem to view politics the way I view laundry,” he explained. “While I understand that to be a functioning member of society I have to do my laundry, and I always eventually get it done, I’ll never do it before every last piece of clean clothing is dirty, as I find the entire business to be a chore. A significant number of undecided voters, I think, view politics in exactly this way: as a chore, a duty, something that must be done but is altogether unpleasant, and therefore something best put off for as long as possible.”
Three of the sorority sisters, including the one who planned to vote, but didn’t yet know for whom, seemed to feel faintly guilty about not being more knowledgeable, and pointed to their friend as the one among them who enjoyed politics––who sometimes talked about the election voluntarily and went out of her way to watch the first presidential debate. She’s the one you ought to interview, they said, pressing her to comment. Thus encouraged, that fourth girl shared her views.
“Hillary, Hillary, Hillary,” she said. “Those heels! Did you see how little they were?” She was speaking about the first debate. I said that I hadn’t noticed her heels. “They were the funniest heels I have seen in my entire life!” she said. “Yeah, funny shoes. That’s really about it. And she’s a hypocrite.” She added that “none of them are good,” and that there isn’t anyone else she would support if they were on the ticket. “Not really,” she said, “because I don’t know enough to even decide that.” Said her friend who was planning to vote, “Why are all the choices so bad?”
In the Tucson arts district, outside a comedy club, I met a middle-aged black man handing out demo CDs on behalf of Leadership Records, a small, independent label where he worked. I took one, so he talked to me reluctantly. “I don’t trust Donald Trump for the simple reason that if you put pictures on the internet of your parents in a KKK uniform and expect to get the black vote, then you’re just retarded,” he said, apparently referring to a photograph that is actually a hoax, or possibly to a real story about Trump’s father being arrested at a Klu Klux Klan rally in 1927. “And Hillary Clinton, I don’t really trust her for the simple fact that you tighten the laws down, and I just feel like us black men are targeted. You tighten the laws down on us, you call us predators, you don’t even know us like that.”
He didn’t anticipate voting in future elections, either.
“Everybody knows politicians are crooked, they never do what they’re supposed to do. Even Obama, I didn’t vote for him, because I haven’t ran into anybody who is worthy of my vote, and I’m not doing it until I feel, I can trust this person. Because it’s all about money. Once people get in there, they get their money, they just forget about us. You racist Donald Trump? That’s your business, nobody cares. American history? It’s bullshit. I’m getting to the point where I don’t even care about that anymore, because it will just stop you from meeting people and all type of stuff. Not everybody is like that, regardless of what color they are, and I really don’t feed into all this bullshit in this crazy world. I would go crazy if I listened to all the things that politicians and preachers say. I’m just tired, and I just want to live life and be happy, so until somebody earns my trust I ignore them all.”
So many people I spoke with were just tired of politics.
The next day, back in Tempe, I wandered around ASU in search of a demographic group that Democrats would like to win by big margins this year: millennial women.
On the sixth floor of the political science building, at an outdoor table with a view of the palm-tree lined campus spread out before them, I found two undergrads willing to talk at length: Nele Van Deginste, who thinks Hillary Clinton should win the election, and a young woman who thinks that Donald Trump should win but declined to give her name for fear of a backlash against her political judgments. The two agreed that South Park was one way they kept up with the election. As they recall it, a Donald Trump character kept telling a debate audience, “I’m unfit to be president. You shouldn’t vote for me,” while the person playing Hillary Clinton replied, “My opponent is a liar and should not be trusted,” only to be interrupted by Donald Trump, who said, “Don’t listen to her, listen to me, I’m awful.”
“Yeah,” the Trump voter said, “they called the election like you’re voting for a giant douchebag and a turd sandwich, that’s what South Park references it as. At another point he’s like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I have literally no plan, I am scared to run this country!’ And everyone is like, ‘Oh, he’s so brave, he’s speaking his mind. He’s saying what everybody else is thinking. He’s not a politician.’” The two remembered most of the episode—it’s how information filters down to actual voters.
Both seemed flummoxed by how 2016 came down to these choices. “One candidate is literally a liar and a joke,” Van Deginste, the Clinton supporter, said. “And the other one has no idea what he’s doing. He’s probably going to lead us into World War III. And us just sitting here, not being able to do anything about it. And seeing how many people are angry, but realizing how powerless we actually are.”
When I asked the women if they intended to vote, Van Deginste clarified that she was born in Belgium, so she can’t. Her American friend did plan to vote, but was reluctant to talk about it. “I’m not gonna hate you,” Van Deginste reassured. If you want to vote Trump, vote Trump. I think it would be dumb, but my opinion is, like, whatever.”
The Trump voter chose a candidate by trying to forget that Trump and Clinton were running, Googling their issues, and backing the one whose platform struck her as better. She liked that the Republican nominee promised to repeal Obamacare.
“I hate Obamacare,” she said. “Insurance rates have gone up. The premiums are huge. My aunt and uncle say ever since that went through, their premiums skyrocketed.”
“But he wants to build a wall!” Van Deginste said, turning the conversation to immigration. “I didn’t leave Belgium because there was bad stuff happening,” she said. “But some people that try to immigrate here don’t have a place to go. Say you’re neighbor’s house is burning down. They’re asking for shelter. And you tell them no? You’re neighbor could be a criminal. He might try to steal your stuff. But his house is burning down and you’re not going to help? And since we do background checks, some can’t even come because they have some distant affiliation with someone who is part of a group––so it is really rigorous. I don’t see why you’d want to leave someone where it’s not safe. What if it was the other way around?”
Said her friend, “Yeah, but is Trump actually going to do half the stuff he says?” She felt, for example, that if elected, Trump obviously won’t be able to build a wall. She didn’t agreed with Trump on immigration, but assumed he was all bark, no bite.
Perhaps most striking was their exchange on foreign policy:
Trump voter: Well, I don’t know if this is true, but from what I hear, Clinton wants to cut military spending, which I think is really dumb, because we need a military… Trump’s foreign policy, he probably doesn’t know what he’s gonna do. That will be interesting, to hear how he handles diplomatic issues. But see, I don’t think he’s going to be able to do anything because Congress doesn’t like him. He won’t be able to get away with any of it.
Van Deginste: Then what’s the point of putting him in the presidency?
Trump voter: Because Clinton is scary and she can get what she wants done.
Van Deginste: But she actually has experience––
Trump voter: It’s not good experience!
Van Deginste: But okay, cutting the military spending, if you just cut a little bit, it won’t make that big of a deal. Do you know that the United States spends the most on the military than I don’t know how many countries combined?
Trump voter: But we kind of need it. People hate us.
Van Deginste: Yeah, you know why? Because we put our nose in everybody else’s business!
Trump voter: Exactly.
Van Deginste: People don’t like that.
Trump voter: We need to defend ourselves.
Van Deginste: Yeah, you know how we defend ourselves? By minding our own business.
Trump voter: But that’s not going to happen.
Van Deginste: Why not?
Trump voter: Because that’s not how the U.S. works, obvi. It hasn’t been that way since, like, forever.
Van Deginste: That’s terrible. But if it was me, I would make cuts to the military because we are spending a lot. We spend less on education. And you need people to be educated so that we don’t have Clinton and Trump to choose from because people are smarter and give us better options than this.
Before a clock tower chimed, sending them off to class together, they walked away laughing, friendship intact, despite their contrary perspectives on almost everything, because if you’re 21, chatting on a sunny day with a close friend about politics, it would seem absurd to let Trump or Clinton come between you, especially if you basically agree that one is “a giant douchebag” and the other is “a turd sandwich.” If Arizona doesn’t turn blue this year, one reason will be that the Democratic Party nominated a candidate who is disliked by so much of the electorate, and so widely perceived as corrupt, that even folks who think she should win, if only to spare the country Trump, can’t bring themselves to really sell her.
Van Deginste thought Trump would probably start World War III and that Clinton probably kept classified material on a private server. She preferred Clinton intellectually, but emotionally those two beliefs somehow washed out to “they’re both bad choices,” and she agreed when her friend––who believes that Trump has no idea what to do in the realm of foreign policy––said that voting for Clinton is “equally dumb.” The youthful illusion of invincibility sometimes has college students leaping drunk off poolside rooftops or drivingly recklessly fast on residential streets. It also causes some young voters to regard WWIII, or a president with no clue on foreign policy, as not-quite-believable abstractions that don’t feel dangerous.
Oh, to be young again!
The Arizona story that ends November 8 arguably began a half century ago. On January 3, 1964, Barry Goldwater gathered 27 of the top Republicans in the state at his Phoenix home, spoke to them in his study, then walked out onto his patio for a public announcement: He would challenge Senator Nelson Rockefeller, an embodiment of the northeastern establishment, for the GOP presidential nomination.
As conservative intellectual George Will would later recount, “He gave people his 100-proof opinions, which did not originate in focus groups and were not mediated by consultants… In 1964 an extraordinary grass-roots movement, energized by National Review magazine, took him to heart and to the Republican nomination in San Francisco, where he scandalized polite society by saying that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. Hearing this, a journalist exclaimed in disbelief, ‘He’s going to run as Goldwater!’”
The trajectory of right-leaning populism was forever altered.
“On November 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson was re-elected by the largest popular vote margin in U.S. history, crushing his conservative opponent,” the Heritage Foundation recounts. “Johnson received 61 percent of the vote, topping the previous record set by FDR, and carried 44 states for a total of 486 electoral votes. The election produced the biggest Democratic majority in the House since 1936. Yet, just two years later, the GOP, led by Goldwater-inspired conservatives, made a remarkable comeback, gaining 47 seats in the House, four seats in the Senate, and eight governorships. Moreover, just 16 years after the Goldwater debacle, Ronald Reagan, running as an unapologetic conservative, won the first of two landslide elections.” Goldwater had “lost 44 states but won the future.”
In 2016, Donald Trump has offered 100-proof opinions in the course of running as himself. And he has attacked the northeastern establishment. So it’s noteworthy that on October 20, a couple weeks after I left Phoenix, Goldwater’s granddaughter, Carolyn Goldwater Ross, attended a campaign rally in the city, where she declared that there was only one candidate who "lives up to my grandfather’s values," "can unite our country," and "can move our country forward."
She was speaking about Hillary Clinton.
That day, on behalf of the Democratic campaign, Goldwater Ross introduced First Lady Michelle Obama, who appealed to the audience to get out to vote for Clinton. The same week, Bernie Sanders and Chelsea Clinton traveled to Arizona to make similar pitches. There was no longer any doubt: The Democrats wanted badly to win the state. And for a while, the push seemed as if it would be successful. On October 16, Hillary Clinton pulled ahead in the 538 election forecast for Arizona for the first time since August. Ten days later, on October 26, that same 538 forecast suggested that her chances of winning the state were up to 56.1 percent.
Then FBI Director James Comey made his controversial comments about emails of unknown content belonging to a Hillary Clinton aide that the FBI would be investigating. Whether in response, or for unknown reasons, or a combination, the 538 forecast for Arizona now shows Donald Trump with a 67.9 percent chance of winning the state. That’s hardly a sure thing. A basketball coach would hate to have a 67.9 percent free-throw shooter on the charity stripe with the game on the line.
But a blue Arizona once again seems less likely than not, even as Hillary Clinton, her lead seeming to slip nationwide, herself made an appearance there Wednesday, telling a crowd of more than 10,000 people at ASU’s Tempe campus, “You are proof that the American dream is alive and big enough for everyone.”
Insofar as more voters in Arizona believe that Trump would be a better president, because they favor a border wall, or want to scrap trade deals, or want Obamacare repealed, and don’t believe the warnings offered by the GOP nominee’s many alarmed detractors, Trump should be ahead, and there are certainly Hispanics, millennials, and even Hispanic millennials who hold those beliefs. But insofar as ethnic minorities, a majority of whom hold different views, are sitting out this election because they feel their participation in the civic process doesn’t matter, or millennials are staying home because they find both choices distasteful, they know not what they do.
Voting isn’t always vital––I’ve sat out elections myself, and I don’t regret having done so in hindsight––but especially for Arizona’s Hispanics and millennials, 2016 is different, and not only if one believes that the flaws of the candidates are not comparable. The easiest way to show black and Hispanic voters that their franchise matters is to recall how hard GOP politicians work to deny it. As Stephen Nuño, an associate professor of politics at Northern Arizona University, recounted:
It was in Arizona that former Chief Justice William Rehnquist was accused of actively working to challenge minority voters during Operation Eagle Eye, a Republican program designed to fan out poll watchers for the purposes of intimidating black and Hispanic voters. "Caging" was another popular tactic employed by Republicans, where letters would be sent out to predominantly black neighborhoods and any discrepancies or undelivered mail would be used to place voters on a list that would be used to challenge their eligibility to vote, purging them from the rolls.
Latinos are also disproportionately young and poor compared to their white counterparts, making them more difficult to reach by the system. Language barriers have also created problems in the past. Counties in Arizona consistently print the wrong information on Spanish-language ballots, and candidates have tried all sorts of tricks to confuse Latino voters. For instance, Russell Pearce, a powerful state senator who came under attack by moderate Republicans for his role in crafting the anti-immigrant bill SB1070, was infamously accused of putting a "sham" candidate named Olivia Cortes on the ballot in the hopes that her name would split the Latino vote. The tricks employed against Hispanics are legend. One Republican candidate, Scott Fistler, not only changed his party affiliation to Democrat, but legally changed his name to Cesar Chavez, the revered civil rights activist. Fistler’s website contained stock photos of crowds holding "Chavez" signs, which turned out to be rallies for Hugo Chavez.
That isn’t to say that today’s Republicans never deserve Hispanic votes.
Had the 2016 primary had gone another way, if Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush or Rand Paul or John Kasich had won the GOP nomination, spoke inclusively about Hispanics, and attempted to persuade them that their interests are best served by a conservative agenda, a plausible argument could be made that voting GOP would’ve been in their interests, or that sitting out the election wouldn’t have done them lasting harm.
But Trump has disparaged Mexican immigrants, insisted an American born judge of Mexican descent wasn’t qualified to hear a lawsuit against Trump University, allied with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man responsible for egregious civil rights violations against Hispanic citizens, and empowered the right’s most anti-Hispanic, bigoted faction.
He’s even been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
If Hispanic voters don’t turn out this year, when the stakes are whether open bigotry against them will be the new normal, they won’t just be confirming that Jan Brewer is correct––that politicians can safely ignore them, because they won’t turn out even when directly insulted. If they stay home and Trump wins, anti-Hispanic and white nationalist factions on the right will be more powerful than they’ve been in a generation. Never in my life have Hispanic voters, or at least the ones who perceive this same strain of racist ugliness in the Trump coalition, had more reason to vote. Never have they had so much to lose by failing to exercise the franchise.
The National Association of Latino Elected Officials forecasts that Hispanic voters will participate in this year’s election at far higher rates than in the past. If Hispanic turnout really does more than double, it is difficult to imagine any future presidential or gubernatorial candidate will attack them as a group the way Trump has done. High turnout could mean a future less hostile to them and their children. Hispanic parents won’t have to explain a next hateful demagogue to their 6-year-olds.
The stakes are perhaps different for white Millennials. If Trump doesn’t bumble into a catastrophic war, through inexperience or being easily baited; if he doesn’t destabilize the world by ending NATO, or trigger a trade war that tanks the economy, or harm the country through inattention and indiscipline, feuding with Rosie O’Donnell on Twitter when he ought to be making sure FEMA is prepared for the next Katrina-level disaster, they might get along fine under a Trump administration. Still, their turnout will determine the extent to which their generational interests are marginally higher or lower on the priority list of ambitious politicians. And staying home won’t make them any less disgusted with politics.
Quite the contrary. For Millennials who are young enough to still expect politicians who inspire them, declining to participate whenever that threshold isn’t met is a vicious cycle. Groups that vote at higher rates, like retirees, are reliably able to select among candidates they like marginally more because they vote their interests consistently, in primaries and general elections, whether they‘re inspired or not. Absent a change in approach, millennials will be disgusted with their political choices through their 20s and 30s, as operatives for the candidates who are the “greater evil” in each cycle exploit their idealism to keep them from voting for “the lesser evil.”
Then, when they have children, or 401(k)s, or Social Security checks, or an older person’s sense of what can go wrong in the world—a sense of how much worse the more flawed candidate can make things—they’ll start to vote in greater numbers; the political process will be more responsive to their preferences as a direct result; they’ll choose candidates in primary elections who appeal more to people like middle-aged-them; and members of that next generation, including college students who never vote in primaries, will say, before some future presidential election, “I just don’t understand how we wound up with these unpalatable choices.”
Not voting except in general elections, and maybe not then, is how.
Most immediately, the opportunity for a new political reality in Arizona is about whether the state will stay red or turn blue in the 2016 presidential race. Yet I hope that it turns blue not because I want Democrats in Arizona to be a permanent majority going forward—I’ll likely be rooting for the GOP there in some future race—and not just because I want Donald Trump to lose the presidency. I hope Arizona turns blue, for now, because I want that new political reality, in Arizona and beyond, to happen sooner, not later. I want Hispanics and young people to vote in numbers such that the GOP is forced to be an inclusive party of all ages to survive, rather than taking a detour as a white nationalist party best suited to racists and frightened old people who literally fear that sharia law is coming.
I want a GOP that can win voters like Matt Berger, the vape shop owner who loves his business, his customers, and building community in his hometown, mistrusts dumb regulation, but cannot abide leaders who stoke racial animus. For him, whether Arizona winds up reds or blue on election day matters less than how its residents get along.
“Whatever happens, I just hope that an election doesn’t splinter the country,” he said. “That would be a horrible thing to happen. Over what? Some person in Washington? I hope that we can just listen to each other and make compromises instead of saying it has to be this way or that. Most people are pretty cool, we just have to get along and take care of each other. It sounds a little bit like I’m a hippy but I’ve met some great people from different walks of life. And I hope they don’t ban my industry, too.”
When Gallup surveyed Arizonans, asking whether the people in their community care about one another, just 12 percent said yes. If Trump wins, having stoked ethnic tensions with a campaign of willful fear-mongering against a demographic group that constitutes almost a third of people in the state, a divided Arizona may splinter. Many who could avert that tragedy are alienated by a political process that they find remote, confusing, distasteful, unresponsive to their policy preferences, and irrelevant to their lives. Staying home this year will only make things worse.