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US presidential election swing states: Is 2020 the year Texas and Arizona will finally swing?

Demographics have shifted over time, but that doesn’t mean voting patterns have changed with them.

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Texas has not elected a Democrat for president since 1976; Arizona voted for Bill Clinton in 1996, but has otherwise gone for the Republican candidate every year since 1952. And yet, for the last few cycles, Democrats have watched both states with bated breath: when will their results finally turn blue?

They were disappointed when Wendy Davis badly lost her governor’s race in Texas in 2014 and again when Beto O’Rourke narrowly lost his Senate race against Ted Cruz in 2018. They were also disappointed in 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost Arizona, despite announcing she would visit the state herself with just 12 days to go until the election.

Still, here they are in 2020 preparing themselves, once again, for either unprecedented victory or crushing disappointment. In Texas, Wendy Davis is running for Congress and Beto O’Rourke has launched Powered by People, an organisation determined to mobilise Democratic volunteers (on one night alone, per an email sent out by the group, 320,000 phone calls were made to Texas voters). In Arizona, polls currently show Biden leading Trump.

The two states are located in the Sun Belt, the US region that stretches from the southeast to southwest, and are both in the area with a rising Hispanic population. States aren’t red or blue or purple because they’re painted those colours, but because residents of those states vote a particular way. When the demographics of the states change, the votes can change too.

 

“The narrative [that the states will swing this year] persists because of the constantly changing demographics of the Sun Belt,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster at North Star Opinion Research. In particular, as Ben Walker wrote elsewhere in the New Statesman, Hispanic voters are growing in number, especially in Arizona and Texas.

[See also: US election swing states: The Florida Factor]

Arizona and Texas are “at different stages of their evolution”, Ayres said. Arizona is much further along than Texas. In Arizona, Democrats could pick up another Senate seat (one Arizona Senate seat is already held by a Democrat) and “maybe even [carry] the state at the presidential level”.

 

Texas, he said, is a cycle or two away from going Democratic, “but given the massive uncertainty created by the pandemic, nothing would surprise me in electoral outcomes” in the state.

“The fact that we are even talking about Arizona, Texas… possibly going Democratic really demonstrates the impact of demographic change,” Ayres added, “and increases exponentially the importance for Republicans of reaching out aggressively to new non-white voters.”

William Frey, a senior fellow in the metropolitan policy programme at the Brookings Institution, said the demographic change is the result of both immigration and internal migration. Most Hispanic voters in Arizona and Texas are now Mexican-American. And in Arizona, for example, there are also young people moving in from California, providing a counterweight to the other kind of voter – older, white and conservative – who move from elsewhere within the US to the state.

 

But though demographics – of both age and race – in the states have changed over time, that doesn’t mean voting patterns have automatically changed with them, or that those new votes can be taken for granted by either side.

Immigrant rights activists working on the ground in Arizona say it's been a decade-long journey to get to where they are today. According to Luis Avila of Iconico, which partners with organisations to develop public engagement campaigns, Arizona “went from the epicentre of hate to a battleground state in ten years”. Only a few years ago Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona's Maricopa County had prisoners sleeping in a “tent city” (he was later held in contempt of court for failing to comply with court orders to stop racial profiling, and then pardoned by Donald Trump in 2017). From 2010 to 2016, the state had police demand the papers of those they suspected were in the country illegally.

In response, “Our community started organising in a more long term way,” Avila said. They worked to get voters registered and to educate people on how vote by mail works. (Mail-in voting, a hot topic this year given we are in a global pandemic, is already how two-thirds of people vote in Arizona). 

Even so, Avila admitted it is a possibility that the Hispanic community in particular, disillusioned by the government’s lacklustre response to Covid-19 – such as the exclusion of mixed-immigration status families from pandemic relief – will stay at home.

Montserrat Arredondo, of One Arizona, an organisation formed to combat voter disenfranchisement, said that part of the issue is educating non-white voters about a system that was literally not built for them. Some members of the Hispanic and Native American communities need in-person voting, even during a pandemic, for translation. And many Native Americans and immigrant workers live in rural communities where their polling places are inaccessible. In contrast, older, white voters “know the system”, Arredondo said.

Nor is it simply about educating voters on how to vote. There is also a need for politicians to craft more targeted policy, Arredondo argued. “We can't do this thing of last-minute outreach,” she said, and the “we” there is true of Hispanic voters, but so too is it true of non-white voters more generally. “We care about the issues, we want to know what you stand for. It's not enough to have a D or R behind your name.”

Make-up of Texas's voting population
Black and Hispanic voters as a share of the voting population fell in 2016.

And Democrats can’t assume that Hispanic voters will back them. As Ayres said, while 50 per cent of Hispanic voters tend to vote for Democrats, 25 per cent tend to vote for Republicans, and another 25 per cent “are up for grabs”.

Make-up of Arizona's voting population
As a share of the voting population, Latinos have grown from 13 per cent in 2004 to near 20 per cent in 2016.

[See also: Can Donald Trump cling on to his base?]

“Savvy Republican politicians, like George W Bush, Jeb Bush, and a number of Texas Republicans have competed very aggressively for that final quarter of the Hispanic vote and have done very well,” Ayres said, noting that George W Bush won a majority of the Hispanic vote in the Sun Belt.

“That shows the potential of a Republican candidate to garner Hispanic support, but you've got to work at it. You've got to reach out to those communities, you've got to advertise on Hispanic media, and truly make an effort.”

But that’s not how Trump’s Republican party is running, in Arizona or Texas or elsewhere. And so, this year, the Sun Belt might see a convergence of factors: changing demographics, a Republican party that’s working against itself in winning Hispanic votes, and organisers and activists who have put in a decade of work.

“The coverage about what's going to happen on November 3 – it is possible because of the political capacity we've been building for years,” Avila said, referring to the fact that Arizona is actually in play this year. “It should be a lesson for Republicans. When you attack our communities, we don't take it sitting down. We bounce back and build.”

[See also: Virginia is for... Democrats?]

Additional data reporting by Ben Walker and the New Statesman Media Group data journalism team

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor