By Nate Cohn
With the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Arizona law and the Obama administration’s recent decision to halt deportations and allow work authorization for certain young undocumented workers likely to gin up enthusiasm among Latino voters, it’s worth revisiting the math in 2012’s stealth battleground: Arizona. Neither campaign is airing advertisements in Arizona, but the Obama campaign has boots on the ground registering voters in an attempt to vault the state into the toss-up column. Arizona selected Republicans in the last three presidential elections, but the Obama campaign justifiably believes that demographic changes make the state more competitive.
For the most part, analysts rightly assume that the McCain states will again vote for Romney. But Arizona was McCain’s home state and Obama probably would have won against a different candidate. In 2004, Bush won Arizona by 10.47 percentage points, but Obama only improved over Kerry’s performance by a net-2 percentage points in Arizona, compared to a net-9.72 percent nationally. If Arizona had moved with the rest of the country, the state would have been a dead heat. But the southwest moved even more decidedly toward Obama than the rest of the country, as Obama made bigger gains among Latino voters than the rest of the country. Indeed, if Obama had improved over Kerry in Arizona by the same amount he did in Colorado, Nevada, or New Mexico, he could have carried Arizona by as much as 5 percentage points.
Most dismiss Obama’s chances in Arizona, but if one assumes that the trends bolstering Democrats in demographically similar southwestern states would have manifested in Arizona, then the question is not whether Obama can turn a red state, but instead whether Obama can get Arizona to behave like a state that voted for Obama in 2008. The best reason for optimism among Democrats is the extent that McCain’s margin of victory depended on a strong showing among Latino voters. McCain held Obama to just 56 percent of the Latino vote—the same share of Latino voters that Kerry won in 2004, even though Obama made double digit strides among Latinos in other states. If Obama does as well among non-white voters in Arizona as he did nationally in 2008, then nearly half of McCain’s margin of victory vanishes. Of course, Obama might do better among Latinos in Arizona than elsewhere. The state has been ground zero in recent immigration debates and a recent Latino Decisions poll showed Obama with 74 percent of the Arizona Latino vote—even better the other Southwestern states. If Obama actually received 74 percent of the Latino vote in Arizona, he would stand at 48 percent statewide, even without registering a single new voter.
And there are many new voters to register. Over the last decade, Arizona’s burgeoning Hispanic population swelled by 46 percent and now comprises 30 percent of the state’s population. Even so, Latinos represented just 16 percent of the electorate four years ago. Concerted registration efforts will be necessary to make up lost ground and fully capitalize on demographic changes. If newfound Latino enthusiasm produces new volunteers (particularly Spanish speaking) to register voters, Obama’s recent campaign maneuvers could have a more direct impact on Latino turnout in Arizona than any other state.
How many new voters will Obama need to register before he can seriously compete for Arizona? That depends on Obama’s current share of the vote, and particularly the white vote, which made up three-quarters of the electorate in 2008. In 2004, Kerry received 41 percent of Arizonan white voters, just as he did nationally, but Obama only received 40 percent in 2008, presumably due to McCain’s presence on the ballot. Should one assume that Obama performs worse than his 40 percent share of the white vote, given the losses incurred since 2008? Or, might Obama hold his own or even do better among white voters, since even Kerry received 41 percent of the white vote?
While it might seem trite to parse the difference between 41 and 39 percent of the white vote, it has big consequences for the viability of Obama’s effort in Arizona. If the Obama campaign believed they could match Kerry’s showing among white voters, then an Obama victory might only require the Latino share of the electorate to grow by 3 or 4 percentage points—roughly the same increase as between 2004 and 2008. Further losses among white voters begin to push the limits of demographics, registration, and historic Latino political participation. If Obama was reduced to 38 percent of the white vote, it becomes difficult to get Obama beyond 48 percent of the vote without an extraordinary increase in Latino turnout of the sort often promised but never realized.
Recent Arizona polls are wildly inconsistent, making it hard to judge whether Obama is in striking distance. But the Obama campaign’s decision to deploy staff to Arizona suggests that their internal polling places Obama within range, even if they are not assured of registering the requisite number of voters. Even assuming that Obama’s operatives can meet their registration targets, it is even harder to say whether the Obama campaign would gamble on an all-out effort to secure the state, given limited resources and an uphill climb. Whether Chicago chooses to do so or not, rejuvenated Latino enthusiasm increases the odds that Obama can register the number of voters necessary to tip Chicago’s calculus toward pouring millions into Arizona.