The last Democratic candidate who won Arizona’s Electoral College votes was Bill Clinton in his bid for re-election in 1996 when Arizona had 8 Electoral College votes. Heading into the 2012 election, Arizona will have 11 Electoral College votes to cast. Like many states in the South and West, Arizona has seen its share of Electoral College votes grow over the last couple decades; and like many of these states, this rise in political influence has been partly fueled by the growth of the Hispanic population.
The 2008 presidential election saw Arizona’s own Senator John McCain win his party’s nomination but ultimately lose to Barack Obama. Despite the native-son effects enjoyed by McCain, Obama increased his efforts in Arizona towards the end of the campaign because of indications that the race was beginning to tighten and the state might be in play. And once again in 2012, prognosticators are talking about the potential for Arizona to be, at least, a second-tier battle ground state – despite the strong support Mitt Romney is expected to receive from Arizona’s large Mormon population.
It might seem odd to place Arizona anywhere near the category of competitive battleground states, such as Nevada or Colorado. How can a state that has produced the likes of Sheriff Joe Arpaio or SB1070 be considered a potential battleground that presidential candidates cannot take for granted? While Arpaio and SB1070 may epitomize certain aspects of Arizona politics, there are other indicators to consider that show that the potential for change in Arizona is afoot.
Arpaio was first elected to sheriff of Maricopa County (the largest county in Arizona) in 1992. Since then he has enjoyed tremendous incumbency advantage given his ability to garner media attention. As of late this attention has featured him on reality television shows or conducting immigrant round-up sweeps (now called “crime suppression sweeps”). These sweeps have come under criticism for violating the civil rights of Latino citizens and for an inefficient use of scarce resources.
In 1997, the city of Chandler (a suburb of Phoenix) conducted an immigrant roundup that has since been dubbed the Chandler roundup. In the process, many Latino citizens were detained for no other reason than appearing to be Hispanic. The resulting lawsuits for violating civil rights of these individuals cost the city of Chandler millions of dollars to settle. Despite the fear that Arpaio’s sweeps may lead to millions of more dollars in settlement costs, Arpaio persists. And he is now in the midst of fighting two lawsuits that many Latinos are watching with bated breath. One lawsuit is being led by the ACLU on behalf of a group of Latino citizens that charge their civil rights were violated because they were stopped by sheriff deputies for no other reason than being Hispanic. The other lawsuit is being led by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in which the DOJ is charging that Arpaio’s deputies engaged in racial profiling.
Against this backdrop, Arizona political news has also been dominated by the passage and challenges to SB1070 – legislation passed in April 2010 that would allow Arizona to engage in immigration enforcement and require local political officers to demand proof of citizenship for anyone suspected of being in the country without proper documentation.
Ironically, the passage of SB1070 was, in part, made possible due to the victory of Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Upon his victory for the White House Obama nominated Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security. Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer assumed the governorship of Arizona and with Republican control of both chambers of the legislature, the path was paved for the passage of SB1070, which was sponsored and strongly pushed by then Senate President Russell Pearce.
It was of little surprise then that a survey of Latino voters in Arizona conducted by Latino Decisions in the week following the passage of SB1070 showed much frustration by Latinos toward SB1070 and immigration politics more generally. Table 1 shows that regardless of partisan identification, the majority of Latino voters were overwhelming opposed to the passage of SB1070.
Partisan differences among Latino voters, however, emerge when respondents were asked to indicate which party they would assign blame for the passage of SB1070 – Democrats, Republicans, or both political parties. The majority of Democrats (75%), not too surprisingly, assign most of the blame to the Republican Party as shown in Table 2. What is interesting, however, is that the modal response for both Independent and Republican Latino voters (52% and 49%) is to assign blame to both political parties. Furthermore, only 5 percent of Republican Latinos are willing to assign sole responsibility for the passage of SB1070 to the Democratic Party – a percentage not all too different than the percentage of Democratic and Independent voters assigning sole blame to the Democratic Party.
With the obvious frustration being displayed by Latino voters to SB1070 and its passage, soothsayers might have surely expected that Latino voters in Arizona and across the country would mobilize heading into the 2010 midterm elections in support of Democrats and in opposition to Republicans. As we know, that was something that did not materialize and many Democratic incumbents (Latino candidates included) found themselves out of office. The question is why did Latino voters, the sleeping giant of American politics, choose to remain dormant? Another question in this 2010 survey gives us some partial insight as to why. The Latino Decisions survey asked Latino voters their opinion as to whether they agree/disagree with the statement that the Democratic Party was to blame for the passage of SB1070. The responses to this question in Table 3 are very telling and help us understand why Latino voters were so unenthusiastic about politics heading into the 2010 elections.
As we can see, the majority of Latino voters, regardless of partisan affiliation, agreed with the statement that the Democratic Party was responsible for the passage of SB1070. While Republicans enjoyed unified control of all branches of government in Arizona, why would Latino voters, especially Democrats, agree with such a sentiment? The answer to this may have more to do with national politics rather than the state. However, there was very little demonstrable effort by Democratic leaders in the state legislature to stop SB1070. Most telling was the fact that the Democratic leader in the House failed to appear for the April 13th vote on the passage of SB1070. It was a vote that would have easily passed regardless of Lujan’s presence. However, his absence carried symbolic importance for Latino voters in Arizona. More importantly, there was a strong perception among Latino voters that the Democratic Party nationally, and the Obama administration in particular, failed to appropriately deal with the issue of immigration in his first couple years in office. The figure below contrasts the difference between how Latinos view Obama’s overall job performance versus Obama’s handling of immigration. What is abundantly clear is that while the majority of Latino voters approve of Obama’s job performance generally, the majority of Latinos disapprove of his handling of immigration policy specifically.
Given the frustration by Latino voters toward Obama’s handling of immigration, it should be of little surprise that the majority of Latinos expressed less enthusiasm about voting in 2010 if immigration reform did not pass (see figure below). And given the Democratic Party’s decision to pursue climate change legislation over comprehensive immigration reform, it helps us understand why many Latino voters chose to stay home in the 2010 elections despite the potential to react against policies like SB 1070.
Important developments have transpired on the ground in Arizona and nationally that suggest that Latino voters level of enthusiasm toward politics has ticked back up and frustration with the Democratic Party have cooled. The Supreme Court’s rendering of a decision on SB1070 kept the attention of Latino voters and provided a talking point for grassroots organizers to register more Latinos in Arizona to vote. In addition, a successful recall election removed the sponsor of SB1070, Russell Pearce, from office and Pearce’s bid for re-election in a newly drawn district for 2012 failed as he lost to his Republican challenger. Add to this the Obama administration’s change in deportation policy with respect to the so-called “Dreamer” immigrants. The coupling of all these events since the 2010 election suggest that the opportunity for Latinos to become a key political force in key battleground states heading into the 2012 general election is a real possibility. This is a line of inquiry I will pursue with future blogs drawing from more recent Latino Decisions data from Arizona.
Rodolfo Espino, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University,
The commentary of this article reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.