The pandemic has accelerated an already growing shift in Arizona. That could spell trouble for Trump.

Adam Edelman and Vaughn Hillyard
·9 min read

PHOENIX — Larry Vroom, a 79-year-old Republican who has voted for the GOP candidate in every presidential election of his life, says he will vote for Joe Biden this year because of President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus.

“He’s not accepting responsibility,” said Vroom, who lives in Sun City, Arizona, outside Phoenix. “He doesn’t talk about the vulnerability of people in our age, 65 and older, group, even though he is part of that group,” he added.

Vroom’s thoughts underscore a major problem for Trump in Arizona, a battleground state that a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t carried since Bill Clinton in 1996, where polling reveals voters overall have an unfavorable view of the president's handling of the crisis.

But Trump’s electoral problems aren’t limited to older people worried about the health ramifications of Covid-19. Conversations with voters, current and former lawmakers, strategists and politics-watchers in the state reveal he's lost major ground with suburbanites and women — two critical groups he would need to limit his losses with if he wants to carry the state. Radically shifting demographics in the state — particularly an influx of young people and a growing Latino population — are hurting his chances, too.

Those changes have nonetheless been gradual, experts told NBC News, and Democrats have been targeting Arizona and its 11 Electoral College votes since 2012 as a prime pickup opportunity in presidential elections. But this year, a match was lit that has accelerated Arizona’s blueward shift: the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The shifts are real, but it’s the Covid crisis that is the issue that is driving people to vote against Trump,” said former GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe. “That is the issue that allows people to clearly see the failure of the Trump administration and of Trump himself.”

“His response has been miserable, and I think most people in Arizona — old people, young people, Hispanic people, women — recognize that,” Kolbe added.

Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican strategist based in Phoenix, put it more simply.

“Minus Covid, this particularly close race here doesn’t happen this year,” he said.

A leftward shift accelerated by Covid-19

Nearly 235,000 people have been infected with Covid-19 in Arizona, and nearly 6,000 have died from the virus. While new cases briefly tapered off after an enormous surge in the state over the summer, diagnoses are on the rise again.

In Arizona, as is the case nationally, infections and deaths disproportionately affect older people and people of color, including Latinos. And because Arizona has a large chunk of both groups, dissatisfaction with how Trump has handled the pandemic is showing up noticeably in election polls.

Biden has led Trump in seven of the last eight general election polls in Arizona tracked by NBC News, by margins as large as 8 percentage points. Many of them showed Arizona voters overwhelmingly believe Biden is better suited than Trump to handle the pandemic.

Biden has seen his support grow among older voters, who are especially plentiful in retirement-community-dotted Arizona and have been abandoning Trump nationwide. Trump won 65 and older voters in 2016 in Arizona by 13 percentage points, according to exit polls, but a New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this month showed Biden leading the group by 1 percentage point.

“Seniors are really pulling for Biden, which, compared to 2016, is just a huge change,” said Samara Klar, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy and an expert on the state’s political dynamics.

The same New York Times/Siena College poll showed Biden with a mammoth 38-percentage-point lead over Trump among Latino voters in the state. His support among that growing demographic — it’s doubled since 1980 to about a third of the state’s population — is a product of grassroots efforts Democrats have made in recent years, dating back to the fight against the state’s controversial “show me your papers” law.

Mari Yepez, field director for MiAZ, a Latino-voter-turnout group in the state, started community organizing eight years ago during an effort to get now-former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio out of office.

“We have registered people and are signing people up on the permanent early voting lists,” she said.

“All of these things contribute to a mosaic of reasons as to why the state’s so competitive,” strategist Coughlin said.

Meanwhile, a massive arrival of transplants in the greater Phoenix area in recent years (it’s the fastest-growing city in the U.S.) has increased the number of young, college-educated voters in Maricopa County — which houses Phoenix, its expansive and growing suburbs and more than 60 percent of the state’s electorate. That demographic helped fuel Democratic wins across the country in the 2018 midterms.

That shift makes any road to victory for Trump in Arizona even more challenging. Only one candidate of either major party has, over the last decade, won statewide while losing Maricopa County. Trump won Maricopa County in 2016 by 2.9 percentage points (and suburban voters by 16 percentage points, according to exit polling).

But the latest New York Times/Siena College poll shows voters in the “Phoenix region” of the state backing Biden 57 percent to 29 percent, and in the “rest of Maricopa County region” of the state 46 percent to 45 percent.

Women, McCain, Senate race make huge impact

Just as critical for Biden’s chances at victory are the levels at which women — especially in those same Maricopa County suburbs — have flocked to Biden. (In the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, Biden led Trump among all women by 18 percentage points).

“The women thing is critical. Women are who Trump has lost in droves,” said Kolbe, who left office in 2007 and decided to leave Republican Party altogether in 2018, citing Trump. “That will be his Achilles' heel.”

Image: Arizona vote, US-VOTE-ARIZONA (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: Arizona vote, US-VOTE-ARIZONA (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images)

Biden is also primed to benefit from the strong effort Democrat Mark Kelly is making to unseat incumbent GOP Sen. Martha McSally. Kelly, a former astronaut and the husband of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a 2011 assassination attempt, has led McSally by huge margins in polls, which also show he is extremely well-liked and trusted in the state.

In addition, Biden continues to benefit from Trump’s longstanding feud with former Sen. John McCain — a quarrel that Trump has attempted to continue even after McCain died of brain cancer in 2018. McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, appeared in a video supporting Biden during the Democratic National Convention and later fully endorsed the Democratic nominee.

“John McCain remains absolutely revered in Arizona, and I think seeing Cindy McCain up there reminded people of Trump’s attitude about him and of the stories we’ve heard about his attitude toward the military,” Klar, of the University of Arizona, said.

Nonetheless, some experts warn that Trump remains highly competitive in the state, mostly because the demographic shifts, while significant, haven’t quite yet fully changed the state’s hue to blue and because polls could be undercounting Trump support.

“Hillary Clinton is actually the top vote-getter for Democratic presidential candidates in the history of the state, but she still lost by more than 3 percentage points,” said Andy Barr, a California-based Democratic strategist who has worked on multiple campaigns in the state. “One of the things people tend to screw up is correlating poll numbers to voter performance.”

Barr, however, also pointed to the fact that, two years later, in 2018, Kyrsten Sinema received even more voters (dominating among women, suburbanites and Latinos) on her path to winning the Senate seat left empty by former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake’s retirement. Her strategy is being closely mimicked by both Biden and Kelly, Barr said.

Early voting appears to overwhelmingly favor Biden. Ballots returned during the first week of early voting in the state nearly doubled over the 2018 midterm levels, and analyses of those ballots broken down by voter party registration by both Barr's and Coughlin's firms indicate the returns will favor the Democrats.

“Trump is the best turnout machine that has ever been invented for the Democratic Party,” Coughlin said. “The early ballot returns that are starting to come in seem to indicate that.”

A robust on-the-ground battle

Meanwhile, Biden and Trump, and their running mates, have had an aggressive presence on the ground in Arizona.

Trump, since August, has visited the state three times, including a two-stop trip to Prescott and Tucson last week. Vice President Mike Pence has held events in the state three times since August, while campaign surrogates Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump have each held a pair of events in the state since mid-September.

The campaign told NBC News it has had in-person contact with 6.8 million Arizona voters during the entire 2020 cycle, and Trump himself has said he thinks his in-person footprint can keep the state red.

“I’m going to go out and win the state of Arizona today with two big rallies,” he said last week just before he touched down in the state.

On the other side, Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, earlier this month chose Phoenix as the venue for their first joint campaign rally since being nominated to the Democratic ticket. Campaign surrogates like former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, who ran in this year's Democratic primary, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez also made stops in the state last week.

The spending war by both campaigns, mostly on ads, has been eye-popping, too, with Biden devoting significantly more resources to the state in recent weeks.

The Biden campaign has spent $25 million on ads in the state since Labor Day, while Trump’s campaign has spent $11 million, according to Advertising Analytics. Outside groups supporting Biden have poured in another $31 million, while pro-Trump outside groups have put in another $20 million. The expenditures have made the Phoenix area one of the most expensive media markets in the entire country this fall.

Biden’s ads have largely focused on the endorsement of Biden by Cindy McCain, Trump’s endorsement of a drug for treatment of Covid-19 that experts have said shouldn’t be used and a general critique of Trump’s failures to address multiple crises, including the pandemic and ongoing economic fallout.

It’s no coincidence those are the issues on the forefront of the minds of several voters who have been fleeing Trump.

“I’ve lost respect for this party,” said Susan Lecometros, a resident of Phoenix suburb Gilbert and a nurse, who switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat earlier this year and donated to the Biden campaign.

In the past, Lecometros said she had always “felt safe in our leadership, whether it was Republican or Democrat.”

But not under Trump.

“I jumped ship,” she said.

Adam Edelman reported from New York. Vaughn Hillyard reported from Phoenix.