What Happened in Arizona

Adam Martin
The Book Aisle
Published in
15 min readJan 27, 2021

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This is the seventh part in my series about the 2020 presidential election. The previous six parts focused on the Midwest, particularly the “Blue Wall” that many Democrats were concerned about winning during the primaries.

Despite being an important component of the Democrats’ electoral strategy, Arizona was the state I had the most difficult writing about before the election given the difficulty in drawing up subsections in the way that I do for other states. In that article, I identified the Democratic strongholds and some opportunities that Biden could pursue, but really, the path to victory in Arizona runs through Maricopa County, home to over 60 percent of the state’s population. Since 1952, Maricopa has voted for the winner of Arizona in every election except 1996 (when Bob Dole won the county despite Bill Clinton winning the state). While this is an important development, it doesn’t lend itself well to the format of these articles.

With that said, let’s dive in.

Big Picture

Joe Biden- 1,672,143 (49.36 percent, up 4.78 percent from Clinton in 2016)

Donald Trump- 1,661,686 (49.06 percent, up 0.98 percent from 2016)

FiveThirtyEight Projection- 50.7 for Biden (up 1.34), 48.1 for Trump (down 0.96)

RCP Average- 47.9 for Biden (down 1.46), 47 for Trump (down 2.06)

OurProgress Projection- 49.97 for Biden (up 0.61), 46.87 for Trump (down 2.19)

After Kyrsten Sinema won the Senate seat here in 2018, many political analysts saw this as a turning point in Arizona’s political development. For decades, this Sun Belt state had been reliably Republican, having only supported one Democrat since 1948. Even Barack Obama couldn’t flip it during his two elections, although to be fair, his opposition included the state’s well-respected Senator John McCain as well as Mitt Romney, a Mormon with strong ties to the neighboring Utah (and is now a Senator for that state). Still, many saw promise in the state’s large Hispanic population as well and the growing metropolitan character of Maricopa County.

After failing to capture the state in 2016, Biden finished the job this time around, netting 510,976 votes from Clinton’s total. While he was bolstered by existing Democratic strongholds in the state, Biden accomplished this by winning over Maricopa, the largest and fastest growing county in the state.

In addition to favorable demographics, Arizona has had its fair hit when it comes to the pandemic. As of Election Day, there have been 249,818 COVID cases in Arizona, ranking 9th highest among the states. Considering that it’s ranked 14th by population, this is a considerable sum. And overall, its incidence rate comes in at 3.4 percent, ranked 15th among the states. On the other hand, there have been 6,020 deaths from the virus as of Election Day (11th highest among the states), setting the fatality rate at 2.4 percent (15th among the states). Luckily, though, the economic impact resulting from the pandemic has been more mild in the state. From March to April, the unemployment rate went from 6.1 percent to 13.1 percent, a 7-point increase that ranks 38th among the states.

As of Election Day, there have been 199 BLM protests in Arizona. Racially, the state has relatively few black residents. Despite having the 14th largest population overall, it only has the 27th largest black population by raw numbers (and 34th by percentage of the total population). On the other hand, Arizona does make up for this with a considerable Hispanic population, the 17th highest amount of college graduates (although 31st by percentage), and the 14th largest young adult population (and 11th highest by percent).

Now it’s important to note that the Hispanic and Latino population in the US is not monolithic and these divisions were put on display in the 2020 election. One of those divisions is Hispanics’ relationship with Black Lives Matter and the corresponding protest activity. There were splits in Hispanic support for BLM, mainly along geographic and ancestral lines, that will be discussed more in the Texas and Florida articles. But in Arizona, BLM support was high and the largest ancestry group was Mexican, which had the highest Biden support of any Hispanic ancestry group in the 2020 election. Because of this, the large Hispanic population in Arizona isn’t a hinderance to BLM support (or Biden support) to the same extent as other heavily-Hispanic states, such as Texas or Florida.

As for exit polls, President Trump won 52 percent of white voters, down from the 54 percent he received in 2016. Meanwhile, Biden won 46 percent of these voters, up from the 40 percent Clinton received four years ago. And as for Hispanic voters, Trump made some improvement, going from 31 percent in 2016 to 37 percent this year; however, Biden ultimately won these voters with 61 percent.

Regarding educational attainment, Biden won 53 percent of college graduates as well as 53 percent of white college graduates, both of which mark improvements from the 46 percent and 44 percent that Clinton received in 2016. Meanwhile, President Trump only won 51 percent of voters without a college degree, including 57 percent of white voters without a college degree. While these are slight improvements from Trump’s figures four years ago, the losses he sustained from college-educated voters offset these gains.

As for age, Biden enjoyed a significant advantage among younger voters, winning 63 percent of those in the 18–29 age bracket, an improvement from the 53 percent Clinton received. On the other hand, the other age brackets were more competitive. President Trump edged out with 51 percent of voters in the 30–44 bracket, 55 percent of the 45–64 bracket, and 50 percent of voters over 65. While performed slightly better than the rest of the nation with 30–44 voters, this competitiveness with the older age brackets is also consistent with the rest of the country. More importantly, though, is that Biden improved upon Clinton’s performance with older voters, especially those over 65, even if he didn’t exact win with these age brackets.

Geographically, Biden also made significant improvements in Arizona, winning 56 percent of urban voters (compared to just 49 percent for Clinton). While President Trump did capture 55 percent of suburban voters, Biden’s 45 percent mark is a 6-point improvement from Clinton’s 2016 figure. Finally, Trump won 55 percent of rural voters, a slight improvement from the 53 percent he got four years ago.

Socioeconomically, 44 percent of Arizona voters said their family’s financial situation is better than what it was four years ago (compared to 41 percent nationwide), of which 83 percent voted for President Trump. 15 percent said their family’s financial situation is worse than what it was four years ago (compared to 20 percent nationwide), of which 91 percent supported Biden. And 41 percent said their family’s financial situation is the same as what it was four years ago (compared to 39 percent nationwide), of which 71 percent voted for Biden.

When asked about their most important issue, 34 percent of Arizona voters said the economy (matching the rest of the nation), of which 91 percent voted for President Trump. Meanwhile, 21 percent said the pandemic was the most important issue and 12 percent said racial inequality, of which 95 percent and 93 percent voted for Biden respectively. And when asked what was more important to accomplish, 49 percent of voters prioritized containing the virus (of which 86 percent voted for Biden) while 45 percent prioritized reopening the economy (of which 87 percent voted for Trump).

Given the small numbers of counties in the state, a regression analysis is not appropriate as the small sample size would yield a large standard error for any coefficients. Because of this, it would be difficult to establish any meaningful relationships for this state.

With all that established, let’s look at the state’s two main subsections.

Arizona’s Democratic Counties

Apache- Biden Hold

Biden- 23,293 (66.23 percent, up 6.27), Trump- 11,442 (32.53 percent, up 3.61)

OurProgress Projection- 65.12 for Biden (down 1.11), 34.88 for Trump (up 2.35)

Coconino- Biden Hold

Biden- 44,698 (61 percent, up 7.66), Trump- 27,052 (36.92 percent, up 2.17)

OurProgress Projection- 62.79 for Biden (up 1.79), 37.21 for Trump (up 0.29)

Pima- Biden Hold

Biden- 304,981 (58.61 percent, up 6), Trump- 207,758 (39.92 percent, up 0.72)

OurProgress Projection- 60.21 for Biden (up 1.6), 39.79 for Trump (down 0.13)

Santa Cruz- Biden Hold

Biden- 13,138 (67.18 percent, down 2.53), Trump- 6,194 (31.67 percent, up 8.43)

OurProgress Projection- 73.86 for Biden (up 6.68), 26.14 for Trump (down 5.53)

First, there are the four counties that Clinton won. Three of these counties saw dramatic shifts into Biden’s corner in 2020, increasing their Democratic vote shares by more than 5 percent. Overall, Biden received 59.5 percent of the vote in this subsection, up from the 53.6 percent Clinton received four years ago, a net gain of 100,272 votes.

As the largest county in the subsection, Pima was critical to this substantial improvement. This isn’t surprising, given that the county is known for being highly educated (almost 32 percent of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree), economically prosperous, while embodying much of Arizona’s racial and ethnic diversity (37.8 percent of the population, for example, is Hispanic). And given its overall size, the fact that Biden gained about 6 points in this county was a significant push that helped him statewide.

Outside Pima, Biden also performed well in the smaller Democratic counties. Biden won over 60 percent of the vote in Coconino, a 7.7-point improvement. One factor here is the share of young adults, who comprise 21.8 percent of the population (the highest in the state). Flagstaff is a popular destination for younger people, drawn by the city’s strong job market, particularly in scientific research. But Biden’s support is also driven by Coconino’s prominent Native American population, making up an additional 27.4 percent. And there’s also Apache County, where Native Americans make up almost three quarters of the population. While Apache isn’t as successful economically as Coconino (it’s actually one of the poorest counties in the state), the long Democratic success enjoyed from Native Americans held true here, giving Biden over two thirds of the vote.

Finally, there’s Santa Cruz, where Biden actually underperformed Clinton. Granted, it was only by 2.5 percent; however, it’s still interesting to note. Not to jump the gun, but in numerous border counties in Texas, Trump exceeded expectations, even flipping some of those counties after losing them in 2016. Not to say that Santa Cruz voted the way it did for the same reasons, but its status as a border county may have shifted the voting behavior with regards to Trump. After all, it’s possible that a few voters here may appreciate Trump’s focus on immigration during his presidency. Even so, this county still went to Biden quite overwhelmingly.

As of Election Day, there have been 41,731 COVID cases in this subsection, setting the incidence rate at 3.2 percent (slightly below the state average). Apache and Santa Cruz significantly exceed this mark, reaching incidence rates of 5.6 percent and 6.6 percent respectively. This isn’t too surprising, given that Apache is heavily Native American and the poorest county in the state, while Santa Cruz sits on the Mexican border, making both of them vulnerable to transmission. On the other hand, there have been 1,034 deaths in the subsection, setting the fatality rate at 2.5 percent (on par with the state average). Regarding timing, there was a spike in cases during the summer months; however, there was a dip in the early fall months. And for unemployment, this subsection largely reflects the rest of the state, going from 6.6 percent in March to 13.5 percent in April. Apache and Santa Cruz were already prone to high unemployment before the pandemic and they both saw their rates reach 15.7 percent and 15.9 percent respectively. Coconino, however, had the largest increase, going from 8.1 percent in March to 17.4 percent in April. While the subsection has recovered in the months since then, its unemployment rate was still at about 7 percent as of September, with Apache and Santa Cruz’s remaining in double digits.

Finally, as of Election Day, there have been 51 BLM protests in this subsection, with 36 happening in Pima alone. This isn’t surprising, given that Pima is not only the largest county, but has a decent mixture of demographics. While blacks make up only 4.2 percent of Pima’s population, this is made up for by a large share of Hispanic residents and a strong base of college graduates. An additional 11 protests happened in Coconino, also not surprising given the county’s large share of young adults and college graduates. Overall, while this subsection doesn’t contain the majority of the state’s population, the favorable demographics drive up the protest activity.

Arizona’s Pickup Opportunities

Maricopa- Biden Flip

Biden- 1,040,774 (50.32 percent, up 6.63), Trump- 995,665 (48.14 percent, up 1.69)

OurProgress Projection- 53.19 for Biden (up 2.87), 46.81 for Trump (down 1.33)

Navajo- Trump Hold

Biden- 23,383 (45.17 percent, up 5.31), Trump- 27,657 (53.43 percent, up 3.59)

OurProgress Projection- 43.2 for Biden (down 1.97), 56.8 for Trump (up 3.37)

Yuma- Trump Hold

Biden- 32,210 (46.09 percent, up 0.45), Trump- 36,534 (52.28 percent, up 5.6)

OurProgress Projection- 51.78 for Biden (up 5.69), 48.22 for Trump (down 4.06)

Finally, there are the three pickup opportunities that I identified in my pre-election article. By and large, Biden made significant gains in these counties, winning 50 percent of the vote in the subsection (compared to just 43.7 percent for Clinton in 2016). While Biden only won one of these three counties, the one that he did win was by far the most important for him winning statewide.

The biggest gain came in Maricopa County, which Biden successfully carried. While it was expected that Biden would carry the county from the OurProgress projection, winning this county is a major factor contributing to his victory statewide. As stated above, over 60 percent of the state’s population lives in Maricopa and most of it consists of cities (the largest of which being Phoenix) and sprawling suburbs. Considering the broad discussion on Biden’s ability to win among suburban and college-educated voters amid immense dissatisfaction with President Trump, Maricopa was a key opportunity to make a statement. And it worked, although it did not come easy.

One needs to remember that despite housing several large cities, Maricopa has been consistently Republican for decades. Before this past year, it was the largest county in the nation to vote Republican in presidential elections. Additionally, Maricopa was where Joe Arpaio served as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” from 1993 until his defeat in the 2016 election. Since then, he has was convicted in 2017 for contempt of court, only to be pardoned weeks later by President Trump, and he mounted an unsuccessful Senate run in 2018, losing in the Republican primary. While there are indications that Maricopa was changing politically in the leadup to 2020, a Biden win was not guaranteed.

For this article, I decided to take my analysis a step further and collect precinct-level for Maricopa County. On this level, Biden’s improvement becomes even more evident. Of the 716 precincts for which data is available, Hillary Clinton won 316 in 2016 with an average per-precinct vote share of 57.6 percent. Meanwhile, Trump won 400 counties with an average per-precinct vote share of 57.8 percent. Four years later, however, Biden won 374 precincts, meaning he flipped 61, with an average per-precinct vote share of 62.5 percent, an average vote share increase of 4.8 percent. Going further, 354 of these precincts saw a Democratic vote share increase of 5 percent or more, 15 saw an increase of 10 percent or more, and 3 saw an increase of 20 percent or more. Conversely, President Trump only won 340 precincts this time around with an average per-precinct vote share of 57.8 percent (no improvement from 2016). While he did flip two precincts, those do not nearly make up for the losses he sustained county-wide. Furthermore, only 24 precincts saw a Trump vote share increase of 5 percent or more, 5 saw an increase of 10 percent or more, and 2 saw an increase of 20 percent or more. Overall, these shifts reflect how Biden’s improvement in Maricopa is spread out throughout much of the county rather than just relying on a few small locales.

Overall, Maricopa was critical to Biden winning statewide, but there’s still some notes to be said about the other pickup opportunities, even if they weren’t necessarily pickups. In Navajo, Biden received a 5.3-point boost from four years ago, enough to elevate the county into a swing classification. In my pre-election article, I pointed to the county’s notable Native American and Hispanic populations as potential sources of votes for Biden, as well as its unfavorable economic conditions. But while Trump was ultimately able to retain this county, Biden still made inroads, netting him 6,924 votes from Clinton in 2016.

Finally, there’s Yuma which, similar to Santa Cruz, is a border county that Biden barely made a budge in. This particularly jumps out, given that the OurProgress model expected Biden to carry this county, only to overestimate his performance by over 5 points. It’s possible that much of those same dynamics are in play in Yuma, especially given that Yuma is dependent on agriculture, which often demands seasonal immigrant labor. This, coupled with Yuma’s chronic socioeconomic woes may have helped President Trump retain much of his support in this region. Still, I thought this area was worth at least a mention.

As of Election Day, there have been 181,804 COVID cases in this subsection, setting the incidence rate at 3.8 percent (above the state average). Almost of all these cases occurred in Maricopa; however, Navajo and Yuma have significantly higher incidence rates relative to their populations, reaching 5.9 percent and 6.6 percent respectively. On the other hand, there have been 4,234 deaths in this subsection, setting the fatality rate at 2.3 percent (slightly below the state average). Regarding timing, this subsection saw a slight increase in cases from the early months to the summer months; however, there was a more dramatic increases in the fall months as the pandemic worsened in the leadup to the election. And for unemployment, this subsection largely mirrors the rest of the state, going from 5.9 percent in March to 13 percent in April. While most of the job losses were in Maricopa, the overall economic hits were worse in Navajo and Yuma, both of which already suffered from high unemployment before the pandemic. By April, Navajo’s unemployment is up to 14.3 percent while Yuma’s was all the way up to 23.8 percent. And while this subsection has largely recovered in the months since then, its unemployment rate was still at 6.8 percent as of September. While Yuma’s unemployment remained at 17 percent as of September, this is more consistent with its seasonal economy that causes its chronically high rate.

Finally, as of Election Day, there have been 126 BLM protests in this subsection, with all but two occurring in Maricopa. As the largest county in the state, it makes sense that Maricopa is a large hub of protest activity. While only 6.4 percent of its population is black, this is made up for by the fairly large Hispanic population, which accounts for 31.4 percent of the population. This is further bolstered by the large college graduate population and young adult population within the county.

Conclusion

Overall, Arizona is a prime example of how Biden, and the Democrats for that matter, have made significant inroads in traditional Republican territory. Plenty of these trends predate 2020, such as the exponential population growth in the state, especially in Maricopa County. No longer was Arizona merely a destination for Mormons or white retirees, two groups that skew Republican. Now, the state began experiencing a transfusion of young adults, college-educated workers, and residents of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Still, before 2020, this was a state that had elected John McCain and Joe Arpaio time and time again. Even now, the Republican Party remains competitive.

But 2020 marked a perfect storm for the Democrats to play off voters disaffected by the changes Trump has made to the Republican Party, allowing victory to not only become possible, but also a material reality. There’s been an ongoing debate in recent months about how voting behavior for suburban and college-educated voters will shift now that Donald Trump is out of office. Much of that will hinge on how the Republican Party comes out of the soul search that typically follows losing a presidential election, particularly whether they believe Trumpism is a model that can be improved upon to appeal to more voters or if it is better to return to a Republicanism that is reminiscent of the Reagan and Bush eras. Some of it will also come down to whether voters will feel the same sense of urgency to turn out in future elections, or if the push by Biden and his supporters to “make politics boring again” will usher in a more familiar political attitude. These themes will come up in the next few years as we deal with the aftermath. But there is plenty of reason to believe that regardless of national trends, Democrats will continue to remain competitive in Arizona moving forward.

So that’s it for the third part of this series. If you enjoyed this, please like and follow the Book Aisle. Also share this article on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms.

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