Electoral Musings

Phoenix Magazine – January 2017

Mike O’Neil


Arizona moves (relatively) Democratic?  In 2012 the Presidential vote in Arizona was +9% Republican vs. the nation’s +4% Democratic. So Arizona was 13% more Republican than the nation as a whole.  This year Arizona voted +3.5% Republican while the nation was +1.5% Democratic so we were 5% more Republican than the nation as a whole. That is an 8% Democratic swing relative to the rest of the country.  Pretty substantial for a four year period.  And significant if it holds up over time.

Why did Arizona move in this direction?  There was a substantial Hispanic voter registration effort. Their goal was to register 75,000 new voters; they got 150,000.  Newly registered voters usually vote. That could account for a bunch of the change.

Will it persist?  My guess: No.  2016 presented the opportunity to vote against both Trump and Arpaio and Hispanics had ample reason to be incensed about each.  Remove that incentive, and I am skeptical about the persistence of this vote.  Blacks came out in large numbers for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but black turnout was down in 2016.  My guess is that the same thing happens here.  But I’d love to be wrong. It would be a good thing if the electorate actually reflected the state’s citizens.

Arizona is Still Republican. Continued Republican dominance of the state legislature (with holdover Republicans in all other statewide offices) and a clean sweep of the Corporation Commission make it clear that an “R” next to your name will virtually guarantee your election in statewide and most legislative districts in the state. Almost always (see below).

Sufficiently Flawed Republican Candidates Can Occasionally Lose. Two long-term octogenarian Republican officeholders bit the dust.  A combination of millions of dollars in legal costs borne by the public, a criminal indictment, diminished concern about illegal immigration, and general “Joe fatigue” finally cost Joe Arpaio his job as Maricopa County Sheriff after 24 years.  And if memories of the long line in this spring’s election were not enough to sink Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell after 28 years in office, the lines in some of the Early Voting sites probably sealed her fate. And a questionable past undoubtedly cost Paul Babeau a seat in Congress in the swing CD1. But these are specific exceptions and do no auger a Democratic trend.

What does this mean for state governance? Continued rule not only by Republicans, but by those of a “tea party” orientation.  Along with Governor Ducey’s packing of the Supreme Court by expanding its membership (something even President Roosevelt failed to do), this dominance guarantees that government will be cut as much as possible and Ducey will be able to deliver on his promise of annual tax breaks,  mostly for businesses. The only constraints on these cuts will be those of an occasionally incensed populace, but that is likely to be restricted to cuts in school funding which hit home with many parents and have reached levels that the public has come to see as excessive. And expect “social issue” legislation, mainly anything that is anti-abortion or pro-gun.

But Republican votes does not necessarily mean the electorate is “conservative.”  By a whopping (almost 20% margin) voters approved a substantial minimum wage boost.  Recreational marijuana failed by only 3%. We previously voted in medical marijuana. And we have regularly voted for tax increases when those increases are clearly targeted for a high priority area with a specific plan for their use (notably in the areas of education and transportation).  Add in a voter-implemented independent redistricting commission and a voter-initiated Clean Elections Commission.  These are not the hallmarks of a “conservative” electorate.

No Purple in Sight. That noted, the “R” brand in Arizona is sufficiently established that I do not see the state becoming “purple” in the next couple of election cycles, unless I am wrong about the likely path of Hispanic registration and voting patterns. The only increases in public expenditures are likely to come from citizen initiatives in instances where the legislative cuts overreach public preferences and the public feels the pinch (likely in school funding).


Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.