In the agonizing days after the 2018 election, Christine Marsh, a Democratic candidate for state Senate in a traditionally Republican suburban Phoenix district, watched her opponent’s lead dwindle to a few hundred votes, with thousands of ballots left to be counted.
In the end, just 267 votes separated them.
Marsh lost. But the result was ominous for Republicans, in a corner of Phoenix’s ever-expanding suburbs where Barry Goldwater, the long-serving Arizona senator and conservative icon, launched his presidential campaign in 1964 from the patio of his famed hilltop estate in Paradise Valley.
In the decades since, population growth and shifting demographics have transformed the cultural, political and economic complexion of the region.
And the election of Donald Trump has exacerbated these trends across the country, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in diverse, fast-growing metropolitan areas like Phoenix, where the coalition of affluent, white suburban voters that once cemented Republican dominance is unraveling.
“We’ve seen a huge shift in my district, even in just the last two years,” said Marsh, a a high school English teacher who is challenging Republican incumbent Kate Brophy McGee again this year. The district, which includes the prosperous Paradise Valley and parts of north central Phoenix, is now at the center of the political battle for Arizona’s suburbs.
Over the last four years, Republicans have watched their support collapse in suburbs across the country, as the president’s divisive rhetoric and incendiary behavior alienates women, college graduates and independent voters. But as Trump continues to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, even after more than 225,000 deaths nationwide and as cases continue to climb, his conduct is imperiling not only his own re-election campaign, but his entire party.
The depth of Trump’s problems with suburbanites is magnified in Maricopa county, one of the largest and most suburban counties in the nation, with a population of almost 4.5 million.
In 2016, the suburbs helped deliver Trump’s narrow victory here. But polling shows the president has lost significant ground with these voters, threatening his prospects in a state that has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1952.
“If the president loses Arizona, it’ll be largely because he lost Maricopa county – because he lost the suburbs,” said Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator and a conservative critic of the president who has endorsed his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
The political dividing line in America now runs directly through suburbs like the ones around Phoenix, rare ground where Trump inspires both fierce loyalty and deep revulsion.
Here, across desert sprawl of stuccoed housing developments and saguaro-scattered foothills, is “ground zero”, said Mike Noble, the chief pollster at OH Predictive Insights in Phoenix. Not only are these voters poised to deliver a referendum on Trump next week, they will also be decisive in determining control of the US Congress and the state legislature.
In his analysis of precincts that voted for Trump in 2016 yet backed the Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema two years later, the vast majority were in suburban parts of Maricopa county. Sinema, who cast herself as an “independent voice” willing to break with her party, became the first Democrat in 30 years to win a US Senate seat in the state, beating Republican Martha McSally, who had tied her fate the president.
“The big story of the last four years is the shift of white, college-educated independents and self-identified moderates,” he said.
Independents, or unaffiliated voters, make up roughly a third of Arizona’s electorate. In 2016, they broke narrowly for Trump, but this year, polling suggests these voters are swinging heavily away from the president.
According to an October Monmouth poll, independent voters in Arizona favor Biden by 21 percentage points. The survey also found that most of the state’s independent voters believe McSally, who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of the late Republican senator John McCain after losing to Sinema in 2018, is too supportive of the president. She now faces an uphill battle to keep the seat, after months spent trailing her Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly.
Unlike McSally, McGee – the Republican state senator who is trying to hold on to her seat in Phoenix – has carefully cultivated a reputation as a moderate, breaking with her party on legislation related to Medicare expansion and school vouchers.
Yet like many Republicans running in increasingly formidable terrain, McGee faces strong national headwinds after four-years of anti-Trump activism and resistance in the suburbs. Arizona’s Red for Ed movement, which led to a week-long teacher walkout in 2018, galvanized parents and students alike and helped built support for Marsh who was the 2016 state teacher of the year.
This year, education, compounded by the coronavirus, is a top priority for Arizonans, and, on this issue, voters favor Democrats. A ballot measure imposing a surtax on the highest earners to increase public education funding is poised for approval, with polling showing support from a majority of Democrats and independent voters.
“I really do think it’s frustration,” Marsh said. “Voters are really fed up with the lack of leadership and they realize that the only way we’re going to change anything in Arizona is by changing the balance of power.”
‘Suburban women, will you please like me?’
Trump has attempted to woo back suburban voters by casting himself as the protector of a certain “suburban lifestyle dream” who would forestall an “invasion” of low-income housing and keep their neighborhoods safe from the “crime and chaos” of America’s “dysfunctional cities”.
His appeals, intended to stoke the racist fears of white voters, conjures a decades-old image of suburbia that is completely detached from the racially diverse and economically prosperous communities growing around America’s biggest cities. Yet polling suggests the entreaties have not worked.
Unlike four years ago, Trump is trailing by significant margins among white women, a group that includes independents and moderate Republicans likely to be turned off by Trump’s inflammatory speech.
“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump pleaded at a recent rally in Pennsylvania. “Please? Please!”
Lisa James, a veteran Republican strategist in Phoenix, said a public safety message had the potential to resonate with conservative suburban women, who were upset by scenes of rioting and violence that occurred alongside largely peaceful protests against racism and police brutality this summer.
“These voters are concerned about the safety and security of their families and their communities,” James said. “Events like that will lead many of them right back to the Republican party.”
The October Monmouth poll found that nearly 60% of Arizona voters, including a majority of voters in Maricopa County, worried “a lot” about the potential breakdown of law and order. The issue was more of a concern for voters than the coronavirus pandemic and other financial matters.
However, it hasn’t reshaped their opinion of the president. The same survey found that Arizonans preferred Biden over Trump, even though they trusted Trump more to maintain law and order.
Other national polls show Trump’s standing on the issue even more diminished, with voters saying Biden was better suited to handle crime and public safety. In a national Fox News survey released earlier this month, 58% of voters agreed that the way Trump talks about racial inequality and policing had lead to “an increase in acts of violence.”
In 2016, Karie Barrera said, she was an independent who cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton. Four years later, the recently retired educator said she was still not enthralled by the president. But she became increasingly alarmed after the Black Lives Matter protests led to calls for making school curriculums more inclusive.
“I don’t like that you’re going to mess with our real history,” Barrera said.
The president has claimed that schoolchildren are being taught a “twisted web of lies” about systemic racism in America and called for a return to “patriotic education”. Barrera agrees: “You don’t rewrite our history.”
Yet the very rhetoric that reassures Barrera is jeopardizing a coalition that once cemented Republican dominance in states like Arizona.
“The more that Trump’s rhetoric is designed to appeal to a white, male working-class set of voters, the more alienated these college-educated, right-leaning independents and Republicans start to feel,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican consultant who has spent the last several years studying suburban voters.
‘This was personal’
In 2016, women in Arizona narrowly favored Clinton over Trump. In the latest New York Times/Siena College poll of Arizona voters, Biden held a daunting 18-point lead among women in the state.
From the outset, it was clear that many of the women Longwell convened in her focus groups didn’t like Trump: they didn’t like his tweets, his treatment of women, his conduct or his leadership style. But they took a chance on him in 2016 because they believed the alternative wasn’t any better. These were often the voters who bolted first, helping Democrats retake the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
Among those who didn’t, Longwell said, many have grappled with their discomfort over Trump’s behavior and their allegiance to the Republican party. Despite the tumult of the last four years, little moved these women, Longwell said, until the pandemic arrived.
“Suddenly there was a shift,” she said. “Voters started talking about the stakes being too high. They were suffering personal consequences, which is very different from an abstract foreign policy issue. This was personal.”
Longwell said the suburban shift away from the Republican party could be the beginning of a “meaningful political realignment” that will outlast Trump’s presidency.
“It will depend who the Democrats are in the future and it will depend who the Republicans are in the future,” she said. “But these voters have no interest in a Trumpy Republican party.”
In 2008 and 2012, Yasser Sanchez worked to elect John McCain and Mitt Romney to the White House. But this year, for the first time in his life, the lifelong Republican is voting for a Democratic presidential nominee – and has no qualms about it.
Sanchez, an immigration lawyer in Mesa, a conservative Phoenix suburb with more than half a million residents, said he was appalled by Trump’s conduct, his vilification of immigrants and his disdain for American institutions. But equally disappointing, Sanchez said, was the near-unwavering loyalty he received from Republican leaders.
“The Republican party used to stand for certain principles,” he said. “Now it stands for defending whatever the president tweets that morning.”
The Trump presidency has forced Sanchez to reconsider his political identity. He isn’t a Democrat, but he also doesn’t see a place for himself in the party he had supported all his life.
This year, Sanchez is doing everything he can to ensure Arizona elects Biden. He hosted a voter registration drive in the parking lot of his law firm and placed an “Adiós Trump” billboard along the busy Interstate 10 in Phoenix.
“For now, I’m comfortable being an independent,” he said. “Unless there’s a reckoning within the Republican party, I will not be going back.”