Many commentators responded with incredulity when the Obama campaign announced its intention to win Arizona this year, and with good reason. After all, this was a state that Obama lost by 8.5 points in 2008. In an election projected to be as close as this year’s, it seems highly unlikely that Obama can flip a solid loss into a victory. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the most likely outcome would be the President losing by an even greater margin.
But Obama campaign’s commitment to Arizona is more than a bluff. Given the convergence of a number of factors, the state is much more winnable than it appears.
Start with the “McCain effect” on the 2008 result in the state. There are compelling reasons to believe that GOP performance in Arizona would have been far weaker in 2008 had it not been the home state of the Republican nominee, John McCain. Indeed, Arizona was statistically an outlier, especially for its area of the country, when it came to the polls. For example, the overall national margin swing toward Obama was around 9.7 points—he won by 7.3 points and Kerry lost by 2.4 points. If the Arizona swing had matched the national swing, Obama would have lost the state by less than a point. And if Arizona had swung as much as the nearby southwestern states of Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico (all between 14 and 16 points, for an average of 15 points), Obama would have actually won the state by 4 points. So there is a reasonable case to be made that the 2008 election result drastically understates Democratic strength in the state in Presidential elections.
Next, consider the influence of ongoing demographic changes in the state which have been steadily increasing the percentage of minority eligible voters, mostly Hispanics, and reducing the share of relatively conservative white working class voters. According to William Frey’s analysis of census data, these trends have continued and perhaps accelerated in the last four years. The composition of the Arizona electorate in 2012 could be 3 to 4 points more minority (chiefly Hispanic) and 3 to 4 points less white working class than in 2008.
This does not mean, of course, that Obama will have an easy time carrying Arizona. On the contrary, it will likely be quite difficult. But it can be done, especially if the Obama campaign can change three key elements of 2008’s electoral equation. First, the share of Hispanic voters must grow and their support level for Obama must increase. In 2008, 16 percent of voters were Hispanic; based on eligible voter trends that number should rise to 19 percent given solid work to register and mobilize this population. And in 2008, Hispanics supported Obama by just 56-41 in the state. Given everything that’s happened in the state in the last four years and the absence of McCain, a politician famous for his moderate record on immigration, on the ticket, it should be possible to move that number up to national support levels (67-31 in 2008 and possibly higher this year).
Second, a projected 3 point decrease in the size of the total white vote should come entirely from white working class voters. Based on recent data, this is a highly plausible assumption. Eligible voter trends since 2008 are consistent with such an outcome and, in 2008, the decrease in the white vote (4 points) did in fact come entirely from working class voters, according to the exit polls.
Finally, Obama’s performance among white college graduates needs to improve over 2008 levels, when he lost this group by 17 points. This was unusually weak compared to Kerry’s performance in 2004, when he lost this group by only 4 points, and to Gore’s in 2000, when he lost the group by 7 points. Returning to these earlier levels of white college graduate support will be crucial for Obama.
Geographically, the locus of these changes would likely be in the Phoenix metropolitan area, which is 64 percent of the statewide vote. It is this area where minority eligible voters have been growing the fastest and white working class voters declining the most rapidly. And it is also the area in the state that has seen the sharpest shifts toward the Democrats in Presidential elections since 1988.
The stage is set then for a possible Obama victory in 2008. Arizona is not out of reach given a serious commitment of Obama’s campaign to mobilization in the state. It will be very challenging, but if there is one state that Obama can plausibly win that the did not in 2008, Arizona is it.
Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West.