“So [Trump] won,” Armando said flatly. “What could be worse than what we’ve already lived through?” Avila had long felt Arizona to be a bit backwards with its draconian legislation and endless civil rights struggles, but with this call his perspective shifted. “I never thought about the fact that we were fighting the fights the rest of the country is fighting now,” he says. Perhaps Arizona wasn’t backward, he thought, but a bellwether.
Latino Activist: “We were very effective at direct action – mobilizing, stopping things. But now it’s a different game. We’re stepping into governing.”
Long ahead of the country in terms of demographic trends—Arizona is expected to be majority-minority by 2028—this shift has only recently started to show up at the electoral level as well. The state Legislature is now just two seats away from a Democratic majority, and in the last midterm election, Kyrsten Sinema became Arizona’s first Democratic senator elected since 1988. In addition, the 10-point lead Mitt Romney claimed over Barack Obama in 2012 narrowed to just 3.5 points between Clinton and Trump in 2016. By last summer the Democratic National Committee added Arizona to its list of battleground states.
There is a debate among Democrats here and across the country about the best way to win in 2020: activate the base or appeal to moderate, independent voters? Avila rejects this. “It’s a false choice,” he says. “We need to do both.”
When Avila returned to Arizona at the end of 2016, however, he saw there were gaps in the skill sets necessary to run large-scale electoral campaigns. “Ten years ago we were doing protests, boycotts, legal suits,” he says. “We were very effective at direct action – mobilizing, stopping things. But now it’s a different game. We’re stepping into governing, so we have to be good at communication and political infrastructure and data.”
With this in mind he launched Instituto, an organization that provides training to build these skills. The long-term goal is to get Latinos and other people of color ready to govern by 2028, the year they’ll be the majority. But there is a rather urgent, big test before then, and that is the 2020 election. All Avila is doing these days is getting ready for that.
* * *
Arizona has 1.33 million registered Republicans, 1.27 million independents and 1.19 million Democrats. So the first thing Democrats need to do is register more Democrats. Montserrat Arredondo, the executive director of One Arizona, a nonpartisan coalition of 19 organizations focused on Latino civic engagement, says the goal is to register 250,000 new voters, of all political preferences, next year, with a focus on people of color. The second thing is to talk to them early, often and in every way on every platform: on their phones, on the radio, in emails and in person.
The DNC tends to send its operatives to Arizona late and “just throws money at it,” while importing outside talent who don’t know the area or the voters very well.
Early means now. One of the mistakes Avila says the Democratic National Committee tends to make is that it sends its operatives to the state late and “just throw[s] money at it.” The DNC also tends to import outside talent who don’t know the area or the voters very well. In contrast, he says, what did work in the 2018 midterms —as evidenced by the unusually high turnout—were organizations that communicated with voters, especially nonwhite voters, months before the election, about what was happening in the legislative session, the Supreme Court and in Washington, D.C. The point of this approach, called “relational voting,” is to build a rapport with voters.
This model of early, constant and consistent communication is meant to be tweaked for each of the demographic groups that make up the Democratic Party’s base, particularly for the two groups that historically it has had the hardest time turning out: Latinos and young voters.
Perhaps no one in Arizona is better at this than Tony Valdovinos, the 29-year-old, curly-haired DREAMer who runs the field operations firm La Machine. His first foray into door knocking came in 2011, after his community college board announced it would start charging undocumented students out-of-state tuition, effectively pricing him out. With nothing to lose—they couldn’t get jobs, and now they couldn’t go to school—he and several other students, collectively called Team Awesome, helped increase Latino voter participation in one Phoenix district by nearly 500 percent.
In that district and others, Latinos weren’t voting at their proportional level in Arizona, for perhaps a number of reasons related to Arizona’s inequality issues. They’re less likely to be homeowners (52 percent compared to 70 percent of whites); more likely to be incarcerated (Latinos comprise 30 percent of the population, but account for 41 percent of those in prison); less likely to have a college degree (only 17 percent of Latino adults 25 or older had attained an associate degree or higher — in contrast with 36 percent of all adults, according to the U.S. Department of Education data from 2014-2015) and more likely to be unemployed (5.7 percent compared to 4.3 percent for whites). These are all among the best predictors for voting behavior.
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Valdovinos has several times met potential voters who keep stacks of mail with ballots from elections two or three cycles old, saved but unopened, in their living rooms. They seem to know the ballot is important enough to keep, but they aren’t sure exactly what to do with it. And so Valdovinos explains how to fill it out and then pleads with them to turn it, and all future ballots, in. “Hey, the reason why these roads don’t get invested [in] and all these other problems,” he tells them, often in Spanish, “is because we’re sitting on our voices.”
The Democratic Party has historically had the hardest time turning Latinos and young voters.
More recently, to get Carlos Garcia, a ponytailed and oft-arrested activist elected to Phoenix’s city council (where he prefers wearing T-shirts to suits), Valdovinos’ team knocked on doors so often (as many as 13 times) that voters began yelling at them. “That’s what we call voter exhaustion,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.” One day this fall, he visited the Dunbar precinct in Phoenix, which despite housing the State Capitol, had the second-lowest voter turnout in Maricopa County in the 2018 midterms at only 22 percent. “I fuckin’ live for this shit!” he says—that confident about his ability to turn out disengaged, forgotten Latino voters. But he does not feel this way about millennials. Even he, a millennial himself, acknowledges the Herculean task of getting young people to vote. “It is truly tough to be serious with a young person,” he says.
This felt particularly true when he spoke at his little brother’s Latino fraternity at Arizona State University a few months ago. Valdovinos asked how many in the room had voted in the 2018 midterms. About three-quarters of the students raised their hands. But it was the other quarter of the room that interested him—lots of boys in lacrosse shirts, slumped over, slowly chomping on their gum.
“I get, like, you’re in college, you [have access] to scholarships, you’re [having] all the fun in the world—you’re in a frat in a beautiful, multimillion dollar-investment school,” he says. “And so, the hard thing to penetrate is to show there’s so much more outside of your career.”
In fact, several people in Arizona are working on the seemingly intractable problem of young people voting far below their potential level. (Millennials make up about one-third of the voting-age population in Arizona but accounted for fewer than 20 percent of the votes cast for president in 2016.) As an experiment in the last election, Avila and other progressive organizers created peer-to-peer messaging with GIFs and memes for young people to send to at least six friends they wanted to remind to vote.
Additionally, the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, which has undergone an impressive transformation in the last couple of years under Adrian Fontes, has launched several initiatives to make voting more accessible to young people, including the creation of a youth-outreach coordinator position. This person goes to high schools and helps students hold school elections on the same machines they’ll use when they turn 18. The students also look at actual ballots, and they are often surprised to learn what exactly they’ll be voting on—the next state mine inspector, for example—in addition to the U.S. president. These efforts are nonpartisan, but because younger voters tend to skew liberal, it will almost certainly be a boost for Democrats.
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If the Democrats turn out their base—“and only if!” Avila insists—then suburban, moderate voters are the last, crucial part of the formula for winning the state. “The urban/rural divide was very real in the entire country, with the suburbs being the battleground [in 2018],” data analyst Garrett Archer says. “And Maricopa County is one giant suburb. That’s a primary reason we are a battleground state.”
GOP Consultant: “A Democratic candidate who wants to decriminalize the border, get rid of charter schools and provide Medicare for All can't win in Arizona."
Maricopa County is home to nearly 60 percent of Arizona’s population. And, as Archer points out, most of it is suburban, so the battleground within the battleground is in this county, specifically in the inner suburbs that form a kind of crescent around the 101 freeway. These suburbs—Chandler, Ahwatukee, Arcadia and South Scottsdale—are the place the precincts split their tickets in 2018, with voters casting ballots for both Republican Doug Ducey, for governor, and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, for U.S. senator. “These are the people that are going to, in many ways, make the decision in Arizona,” Archer says.
According to Archer’s data, these voters are old enough to vote—and by that he means not 18, but 35, the age when consistent voting behavior tends to kick in—but young enough to share certain generational characteristics, like wanting to be closer to urban centers to the extent they exist in Maricopa County. Many of them have bachelor’s degrees, own homes and work in government or technical jobs (there’s an Intel campus in Chandler). Both parties will invest heavily in trying to court them—an estimated $249 million will be spent here during the 2020 election cycle.
Chuck Coughlin, a longtime GOP consultant in Arizona, anticipates a Republican strategy that tilts “heavily negative on anyone” – particularly against Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. “I’ve said a number of times that a Democratic candidate who wants to decriminalize the border, get rid of charter schools and provide Medicare for All can’t win in Arizona,” said Coughlin. (Both Warren and Sanders have pledged to ban for-profit charter schools and freeze federal funding for new charter schools, but not get rid of current ones.)
And even if the nominee is more moderate, Republicans will do their best to associate him or her with the most progressive wing of the party. It’s easy to imagine this—the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently paid for billboards alleging Democratic senatorial candidate and former astronaut Mark Kelly is “silent” on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal that so irked Kelly, his lawyers sent the committee a cease and desist letter.
As Avila sees it, the real game will be played less in television ads and billboards, and more in conversations around dinner tables. He’s actively recruiting people from the inner suburbs to talk to their own communities. Ever since Trump’s election, his friends who live there have been asking him what they can do to help.
“Go talk to your family,” Avila tells them. “That’s it. To be honest, they’re going to listen to you way more than to some random dude that’s going to come knock on their door.” They may say they will, but it isn’t easy to talk about guns or Trump or even single-payer health care in a state like Arizona. Unsurprisingly, the most popular training Avila has done all year is called “Having Difficult Conversations.”
Illustration by: Define Urban
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