‘Arizona is clearly in play’ for Biden

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PHOENIX — Joe Biden may not be making a stop in this new battleground state in the final days before the election. But he’s doing the next best thing — he’s spending more money in the critical Phoenix media market than anywhere else in the country in the last week before Nov. 3.

In fact, it’s been his top media market for the final 6 weeks of the campaign. Biden has outspent Donald Trump in the state two times over — including this week. But political strategists, local elected officials, pollsters and voters alike are largely holding their breath, wary of exuding any confidence about the outcome here, where Biden leads by 3 percentage points, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.

The final New York Times/Siena College poll of Arizona, released Sunday, found Biden ahead of Trump by 6 points.

Trump allies are bullish on the president’s ability to drive up the score in greater Arizona, outside the city of Phoenix. He held rallies last week in Bullhead City and Goodyear, one of the redder suburbs of Phoenix, in an attempt to boost turnout from the base in areas that are friendly to the president.

Democrats lead slightly in early vote count but more voters than usual in Arizona — a state known for its long history of voting by mail — are expected to drop off their ballots or show up in person on Nov. 3.

According to an analysis of early voting data by the Democratic firm TargetSmart, Democrats lead by 11 points among voters who didn’t vote in 2016 as of Sunday. The new voters in Arizona this year are primarily 18-29 year olds (27.9%) and 50-60 year olds (21.6%). Republicans are expecting more of their voters to turn out on Election Day — a change in Arizona where Republicans have typically dominated the early vote and vote by mail.

Ultimately, though, the Arizona outcome will come down to three things: Who wins Maricopa County, the population hub that accounts for 60 percent of the state’s electorate? Can Biden drive up the score in Tucson’s Pima County, a Democratic stronghold? And will Trump find more votes in greater, rural Arizona?

Trump’s campaign has said since at least September that they think they can win the state even if they lose Maricopa County. But Republican strategists and pollsters on the ground consider that a mathematically unlikely scenario — it’s a lot harder to win statewide if a candidate loses Maricopa by more than 2 points. Only one candidate in modern history has won statewide and lost Maricopa County (by roughly 1,000 votes) and it was a down-ballot midterm election race.

“If the Trump strategy is to over perform in rural counties to make up for Maricopa County the one thing that could really screw up that calculus is if Pima County overperforms for the Democrats,” said Republican Kirk Adams, former Speaker of the Arizona House.

Trump’s best bet was to stay laser focused on the economy. Dana Kennedy, Arizona state director for AARP, said focus groups with Latinos, white suburban women, rural voters and one exclusive to Maricopa County residents, found the economy was “Trump’s silver bullet” while the pandemic was “his Achilles heel.”

But in the final stretch, Trump has done everything but focus exclusively on the economy. During his two stops on a single-day swing through the state last week Trump attacked “sleepy Joe” for sometimes calling “a lid” on his campaign activities — a political term of art few voters are likely to know. Trump also accused Democrats of wanting to “surrender your country to the violent socialist mob,” and continued to downplay the pandemic, saying he caught the virus and “then you get better and you’re immune.”

“Your state is nice and open, your governor did a good job,” Trump said last week as coronavirus cases were rising in the state. “You had a spike and he sort of did what he had to do and you just stayed open.”

A day after Trump’s packed Arizona rallies — featuring little social distancing — the state reported more than 1,000 positive cases for a third straight day.

On the same day as Trump’s visit, Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, spent time with Latino business owners in Tucson, the heart of traditionally blue Pima County. If Biden can boost turnout among Latinos and across the board in metro Tucson, it could offset Trump’s gains in the rural parts of the state.

As of Friday, there was a 62% increase in Latino votes cast early statewide compared to the same point in 2016, according to data provided by Hawkfish, a Democratic research firm.

During a drive through rally in Phoenix, Harris reminded voters of the ticket’s connection to the late GOP Sen. John McCain, whose wife Cindy McCain endorsed Biden and sits on his transition team.

The final Biden ads blanketing the state focus on Biden’s record of allocating money to the military, his ability to work with the opposing party and his economic plan. In Spanish-language ads, coronavirus and getting Americans back to work are major themes. In one spot, a narrator highlights the death toll of the pandemic and says Trump “says a lot, but does little.”

Trump’s campaign rejects the idea that Biden is leading in Arizona.

“I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm,” said Republican Jonathan Lines, former chair of the state Republican Party. “And so many people [are] reaching out to me personally, talking about their conversion…and It just seems like people are coming out of the woodwork.”

But the number of visits from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence reveal the reality that Arizona is close. And pollsters from Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights to Republican pollster Paul Bentz said all data point to an advantage for Biden.

“[Trump] keeps coming back here because Arizona is clearly in play,” said Bentz. “They’re clearly nervous about it. And they are desperately trying to run up the score in places where every, every vote that turns out is likely a Trump vote.”

In metro Phoenix, it could come down to voters like Lynn White, 53, a white woman who lives in the Mesa suburb. White stood alongside other current and former Republicans at a pop-up rally for Biden in Mesa last week.

White voted as a write-in in 2016 but this time she’s backing Biden.

“I re-registered as an independent this year because of Trump,” she said. “We can’t continue on the path we’re on.”

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