Long a Republican stronghold, the southwestern United States state of Arizona has become a major battleground in the election contest between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
It is one that Trump cannot afford to lose and yet it appears to be slipping away from him.
Polls show Biden leading the president in Arizona, where the economy and the coronavirus pandemic are proving to be the number one issue on voters’ minds after the president’s poor debate performance last week and his COVID-19 diagnosis.
“COVID is not a strong issue for Trump and he was hoping it would become less of a talking point as the election neared,” said Samara Klar, an associate professor of political science and pollster at the University of Arizona.
“With less than a month to go, it is now all that anyone is talking about,” Klar told Al Jazeera.
That could spell bad news for Trump, whose campaign is counting on winning Arizona’s 11 delegates in the US Electoral College, where he needs to reach the 270 votes required to win the White House.
Early voting begins in Arizona on October 7 and both Biden and Vice President Mike Pence will campaign in the state on Thursday. It is Biden’s first campaign trip to the state.
Trump has visited Arizona five times as president, most recently for a “Latinos for Trump” event in Phoenix on September 14.
Latino voters are one of the keys to winning Arizona – they account for between a quarter and a third of all eligible voters – and Trump’s new messaging reflects how his tough-on-immigration stance has not played well.
“There is a lot of support here in Arizona for a path to citizenship. There is a lot of support here for the notion of ‘immigrants help the culture of Arizona’, ‘immigrants help the economy’,” Klar said.
Trump’s wall on the southwest border with Mexico is “highly divisive” Klar said.
Trump visited the US border area at Yuma, Arizona in June to tout wall construction.
“It’s not overwhelmingly supported among Republicans to the extent he would need it to be, to drive an election victory in the state,” Klar said.
The combination of Trump’s antipathy toward immigrants and his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has given Biden an opening in Arizona, said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine who studies Latino voters.
Latinos in Arizona have become more involved in politics over the last decade in response to the anti-immigrant rhetoric and harsh law-enforcement tactics of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, according to DeSipio.
Trump pardoned Arpaio after he was held in contempt by a federal judge for refusing to stop racial profiling practices targeting Latinos.
“The Latinos that came into the electorate over the last decade mobilised around resentment over treatment that they had been receiving based on immigration status,” DeSipio told Al Jazeera.
The economy and COVID-19
Immigration is not the top issue on Arizona voters’ minds, and neither Trump nor Biden is highlighting it. Rather, the issues now are the economy and the coronavirus pandemic.
“To win the state, Biden needs to run a ground campaign and articulate a message on the economy, COVID and health care,” DeSipio said.
Indeed, both campaigns are making an economic pitch. Pence will appear on October 8 at a “Make America Great Again!” event where he will argue “Biden has turned his back on Arizonans by advocating for the far left’s agenda of harsh regulations and high taxes”, according to the Trump campaign.
But, while voters in Arizona perceive Trump as better able to manage the economy, they tie the present economic downturn to the coronavirus on which Biden gets higher marks. “It is really hard to separate economic and job issues from COVID because they are so intimately tied,” Klar said.
“We are seeing Arizonans telling us that they or their family members have lost work because of COVID, the economy is suffering because of COVID, and [there is] a lot of the disapproval of the way Trump has handled COVID,” she said.
The state of play
Polling in Arizona shows an average lead for Biden of 3.4 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com. Most recently, a New York Times-Sienna College poll published on October 5 gave Biden an eight-percentage-point lead.
“Relative to Arizona’s history, that’s pretty crazy. That’s unprecedented,” said Frank Gonzalez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arizona.
Arizona has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1952, except once in 1996 when incumbent Democrat President Bill Clinton was re-elected. It is a state where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats and Trump won by 4.3 percentage points in 2016.
But the nearby southwest states of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado have been turning more Democratic in recent years and the trend is affecting the once reliably Republican Arizona.
Evidence that some Republicans who supported Trump in 2016 are abandoning him came when Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Senator John McCain, endorsed Biden.
Senator McCain was a Republican who represented Arizona in the US Congress for 35 years and who had feuded with Trump before he died in 2018 of brain cancer.
“The announcement of Cindy McCain going for Biden is really important,” Gina Woodall, a lecturer in political science at Arizona State University, said.
“That is powerful, and it sends a signal,” Woodall told Al Jazeera.
Polls show Biden leading in Arizona’s biggest city, Phoenix, and its suburbs, where Trump won in 2016 as a segment of Republicans say they are less likely to vote for Trump now.
The new apparent heir to McCain’s maverick-style of politics appears to be Mark Kelly, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate.
A former Navy pilot and astronaut, Kelly leads the Republican incumbent Senator Martha McSally by an average 6.6-percentage-point margin in polling. McSally was appointed to fill McCain’s seat by Governor Doug Ducey in 2018 after she lost a statewide election for Senate.
Kelly has run an independent campaign, steering his rhetoric and policy positions carefully towards the middle without embracing the liberal proposals of the Democratic Party’s left wing: “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal”.
A statewide Senate race that “seems to be more consistently in the Democrats’ favour” is likely to help Biden, DeSipio said.
Meanwhile, Trump’s contentious debate performance has not helped in Phoenix and its suburbs, where two-thirds of Arizona’s voters live.
“In Arizona, the leads that Biden and Kelly have seem to be driven by women, young voters, and Latino voters,” said Gonzalez.
“Those demographic groups – particularly women – were likely to value Biden’s ability to show restraint and compassion, and were likely to be turned off by Trump’s unrelenting attempts to ‘dominate’ the conversation,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera.
A sign of how important Arizona is to Trump’s re-election and has been a storm of visits to the state by Trump surrogates in the last month.
Ivanka Trump visited the state on September 16 for a roundtable discussion on working families and tax cuts with Arizona Governor Ducey, a Republican.
Pence, his wife Karen Pence and the president’s sons Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump all visited in mid-September.
“They keep coming back. They are scared. They are worried. They should be. Trump definitely should be worried, for sure,” said Woodall.