To gauge how conservative Arizona is, look no further than the national headlines over the last few years: Its state legislature passed one of the most stringent immigration laws in the country, allowing police officers to check the immigration status of people who are dressed suspiciously, or otherwise strike an officer as likely to be paperless. The office of tough-talking Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio was sued for raiding the home of a man allegedly involved in a cockfighting ring using a tank and officers in riot gear, and accompanied by actor Steven Seagal and the crew of his reality TV show, Steven Seagal: Lawman. Arpaio has been re-elected five times and believes he has unearthed probable cause that President Obama's birth certificate is a fake. Republican Governor Jan Brewer was caught on camera welcoming Obama to her state by jamming an angry finger in his face. And this month, she signed a bill into law shortening the time period in which women can have abortions -- the most restrictive in the country, according to The Atlantic.
This, you might think, is not a state in which Obama has any shot of claiming victory come November.
Think again, say his staffers.
About a week ago, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reported that the Obama campaign is making a serious effort to put Arizona up for grabs. "It is going to be a swing state," campaign manager Jim Messina told Nagourney. The question is, when? The answer may well be, 'not yet.' Bill Clinton carried Arizona in 1996, but he was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Harry Truman. Arizona did have a Democratic governor, but Obama swept her into his administration, and conservatives have enjoyed clear dominance in state politics since. Still, writes Nagourney, there's reason to believe the Obama campaign's effort isn't entirely pie-in-the-sky:
College students in Arizona are legally entitled to residency, and thus are able to vote, after living here for 30 days. The Latino population has nearly doubled over the past 10 years -- it now makes up 30 percent of the overall population, and about 19 percent of the voting age population -- though Democrats have long been frustrated over their lack of success at registering Latino voters and getting them to the polls. The announcement by Richard Carmona, a former United States surgeon general, who is Latino, that he would run as a Democrat for an open Senate seat here has stirred hopes that his presence could pump up Latino participation this fall.
In 2008, Obama won the Latino vote nationwide 2-to-1, and Latino turnout is widely considered an important factor in most of the Western swing states this year. The higher it is the better, for Obama; if it's lower than in 2008, that's seen as good for Mitt Romney.
Whether or not Arizona does become legitimately competitive in this year's presidential race, that Obama is eyeing it at all is evidence that Democrats believe the leftward shift of the Western electorate in recent years is still underway. "Since 2002," wrote New Yorker political reporter Ryan Lizza in a September 2008 profile of then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, "Democrats have replaced Republican governors in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. ... (And) after about four years of lively discussion, strategists and Party leaders have decided that growth for Democrats is more likely to occur in the conservative but idiosyncratic West than in the solidly Republican South." In 2008, Obama competed for Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico, the West's crucial battleground states. He lost Montana, but won the others.
In response to Nagourney's story, Politico's Byron Tau mused that it is possible that "the demographic trends in the West have reached a tipping point where Arizona is genuinely in play." Or, he wrote, you could read Obama's play for the Grand Canyon State as an indication that "their money and strength in certain 'safe' Democratic states gives the Obama team a lot of wiggle room in expanding the map as widely as possible — and forcing the GOP to put resources into states they were not expecting to defend."
Of course, this isn't to say Obama won't have to play defense. Romney has his own rather large stash of cash to spread generously around the country, and the Western states that have trended Democratic of late are by no means safe bets for the sitting President. In states that have sizable Mormon populations, like Nevada, Romney's religion could work to his advantage. The dreary economy could also favor Romney: Unemployment in Nevada continues to hover around 12 percent, 4 points higher than the national average, and poor economics tend to work against incumbents. The margins of victory in New Mexico in recent elections have been incredibly tight, and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson was replaced in 2010 by Republican Susana Martinez, who currently enjoys an approval rating around 60 percent.
Colorado is another wild card. It went for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, but for Obama in 2008. Democrats maintained control of the governor's office when Bill Ritter declined to run in 2010, and both of the state's U.S. senators are Democrats. In an interview with Colorado Public Radio last summer, CU-Boulder political science professor Ken Bickers chalked up the state's leftward shift in part to disproportionate population growth from liberal states like California. But Bickers also pointed out that Obama has been losing ground among independents.
A February report from the L.A. Times suggested, however, that independent voters in Denver and its suburbs -- where Colorado will be won or lost -- weren't exactly warming to Romney, or anyone else in the Republican field. Former state chair of the Republican party Dick Wadhams told the Times' Michael Finnegan that voter sentiment here is "not 'anybody but Obama.' " And, wrote Finnegan, "strictly conservative approaches on immigration, healthcare, abortion and other issues — already emphasized by the (Republican) candidates," aren't generally appealing to Colorado independents.
Of course, if Romney Etch-a-sketches himself back to moderation, his luster has plenty of time to change.
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.