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How the politicization of the coronavirus could shape Arizona's most important county

Posted November 2, 2020 10:00 a.m. EST

— The coronavirus has upended the presidential election and nowhere is that clearer than in Maricopa County, Arizona, the largest swing county in the country.

The nearly 4.5 million person Arizona county has been changing for years, with a Latino population that continues to grow and transplants moving to the greater Phoenix area from more liberal states altering the makeup of a state that was once a Republican stronghold. But the coronavirus, which wreaked havoc over the summer and is continuing to spread days before the election, is threatening to speed up that process as voters decide whether to back President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

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Conversations with more than three dozen voters in the Maricopa County revealed an area shaped by the ongoing pandemic, one where the politicization of the virus was on full display. People who voted for Trump often gave the President the benefit of the doubt on the virus, arguing he was being unfairly maligned. Those who backed Biden often said Trump's response to the virus as a key issue, citing personal experiences with the pandemic for why they chose to reject the President.

More than 3,600 people in county have died from the virus, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University, making how voters feel about the pandemic central to how they will vote. Roughly 75% of the vote in the state is expected to come from Maricopa and more liberal Pima County, while the rest will come from more rural Republican strongholds. Trump won the state by 3.5% in 2016, but Democrats won the state's US Senate seat in 2018 by carrying Maricopa County. A CNN poll released this weekend found Biden at 50% support in Arizona, compared to Trump's 46%, within the margin of error.

Few voters who spoke to CNN said they decided to switch their vote entirely because of the virus, but those who did went from either backing Trump or a third-party candidate in 2016 to choosing not to vote for Trump in 2020.

"This was the final straw for me," said Ann Whitmire, a 66-year old longtime Arizonan who voted third party in 2016 but was considering backing Trump this year. But then Whitmire contracted coronavirus in June and watched in horror as the President made a series of false claims about the pandemic. Whitmire, despite contracting what she said felt like a mild case of the virus, said she still has bad days where she felt the effects months later.

"I may have voted for him, because of his policies. I believe in a lot of what he has done and it's good, but I just can't vote the man. ... The coronavirus was absolutely the thing," said Whitmire, whose more Democratic-leaning husband, William, also contracted the virus and began volunteering for a local Covid organization in the wake of their positive tests.

Describing how she saw Trump claim that the country was rounding the turn on the virus, Whitmire said, "It's just not my reality."

The same was true for Sabrina Mitchell, a furloughed travel agent from Glendale who voted for Biden after backing libertarian Gary Johnson four years ago. Mitchell is not the biggest fan of Biden -- "To be perfectly honest, he is not Trump," she said of why she backed the former vice president. But the way the President has handled the pandemic contributed to her decision.

"I am very frustrated with the way he handled the virus," she said. "I feel like the way he acted kind of instilled everyone's current attitudes about it -- very nonchalant about it."

Arizona's handling of the virus, under the leadership of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, has mimicked Trump's handling of the pandemic nationally. Ducey declared a state of emergency due to Covid-19 in early March and largely shut down the state later in the month, but the governor let his stay-at-home order expire on May 15. By late June, the state became the nation's largest hotspot. Trump, too, took a more stringent stance on the virus in the spring, but as the pandemic wore on, the President openly questioned some coronavirus measures like mask wearing and has held campaign events with little social distancing.

For Trump voters, however, the President's handling of the coronavirus is either something that he is being unfairly maligned for or something that they believe no president could have handled perfectly.

Chase Johnson lost his job as a debt relief counselor because of the shutdowns caused by the coronavirus. Even still, Johnson and his wife Amanda were willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on the virus after they both voted for him.

"I honestly think he did as good a job as he could have" said Johnson. "Hindsight is always 2020. ... Personally, I don't think he did great, but I don't think he did bad. I think he did what he could."

Amanda Johnson personalized the issue: "I can't imagine being in that position and I don't know if anyone could do any better."

And people like Kyle Schmidt, a high school senior who cast his first ever ballot for Trump, said people criticizing the President were unfairly using hindsight to damage him politically. His mother, Kristen Clark, agreed.

"The President did the best with the information that he had," said Schmidt. "If you want to go back and say he could have done this, he could have done this, of course he could have. If he had a crystal ball, he could have done a much better job."

'It is extremely competitive'

The politics of Arizona have been changing for years -- and Mesa may be the best example. The suburb to Phoenix's east is sprawling, an endless grid of sun-scorched ranch style homes that house the city's more than 500,000 residents.

In 2014, as it looked certain that Arizona was set to get redder, not bluer, a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California Los Angeles dubbed Mesa the "most conservative American city."

Mesa Mayor John Giles, a registered Republican in a nonpartisan job, said while he isn't sure the moniker fit back then, but he is certain that it doesn't fit now.

"Ten years ago, if you wanted to be politically relevant and if you wanted your vote to have an impact, you were foolish to be registered as a Democrat because they failed to field a candidate for some offices and even then it was just volunteering to get killed in the general by the Republican," said Giles. "That certainly is no longer the case now. It is extremely competitive."

Mesa, like many cities in America, have been subject to a steady change that made it more purple than red, powered by a combination of suburban women breaking away from a Trump-led Republican Party, a growing Latino population and people moving to Mesa from places like California and Illinois.

A key part of these changes is Republicans, many of whom were deeply loyal to the late Sen. John McCain, leaving the party.

Yasser Sanchez is one of those people. An immigration lawyer who volunteered for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and worked for McCain's 2016 reelection to the Senate, is now working to elect Biden, helping to organize Latinos on his behalf and funding a series of digital billboards across the Phoenix area.

"Arizona is a huge insurance policy for the Biden campaign. If we can (win Arizona), then there is a zero path (for Trump) and that is why the President has come here desperately seeking votes," said Sanchez. "If (Trump) had just said, 'wear a mask' and sat down with the American public... he would have won. ... He could have won Arizona."

Arizona moving away from Republicans, especially because of more liberal voters moving into the state, worries longtime GOP supporters like Darryl Frary, a truck driver who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

"I am sure the influx of people from California who bring their bad ideas here (will change things)," said Frary. "They go over there and screw it up and never learn their lesson. They leave because it is so terrible and then they spread it around. ... It concerns me."

But the shift that has worried Frary and voters like him has excited Steven Slugocki, the chair of the Maricopa County Democratic Party.

"If someone would have said this 12 years ago, I would have been surprised we would be at this point we are at," said Slugocki. "Even six years ago, in 2014, we were a deep red state, Republicans won everything."

But voters like Eric Sampson, a longtime Republican from suburban Gilbert who moved to Arizona from California, are contributing to that shift.

Sampson voted for Trump in 2016 but began to move away from the President early in his administration because of his "attitude towards people" and the sense that he is "better than everyone else."

Then came the coronavirus, which took the lives of older family friends back in California.

"That was huge for me. ... I just don't think he did what he needed to do with Covid. We have all these countries around the world, everyone is still getting sick, but at a much lower rate," said Sampson. "I had already made up my mind at that point. This was just icing on the cake."

'I will settle for him, I guess'

Republicans hope one bright spot in Maricopa could come from an unexpected place: Latino voters.

The party, helped by efforts from Trump's campaign, has attempted to invest more in winning over Latino voters, like opening up Latinos for Trump community centers to "establish a presence in this state and never let up," said Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward.

Ward's efforts to court Latinos are helped by people like Reymundo Torres, a top operative for the Arizona Latino Republican Association, who said a successful Latino outreach effort by Trump in Arizona would be winning over 40% of Latino voters in Arizona. That would be a significant increase from 2016, where Trump won 31% of Latinos in Arizona, compared to 61% for Hillary Clinton.

"That would have a much more significant end result of telling Republicans finally that they can no longer rely on the idea that illegal immigration is a critical idea to us or placating the idea that we just want amnesty or comprehensive immigration reform," said Torres. "At 40%, that philosophy is dead."

Trump did have some Latino support in conversations with voters across the Salt River Valley.

Bob Rodriguez didn't vote at all in 2016. This year, he said he was voting for Trump four years after not voting at all. The retired truck driver who lives in Mesa described the President as "the best man" for the job.

"I want to see if things get back to normal, God willing, these next few years, and go from there," said Rodriguez, who said he doesn't blame Trump for his handling of the virus. "And if he wasn't president, I would feel the same way."

But the more common response from Latino voters was support for Biden -- even if, at times, it was tepid.

"I will settle for him, I guess," said Ariana Mondragon, whose family came to the United States from Mexico. She cast her first ever presidential ballot for Biden, but, at its core, the voter was more against Trump: "As long as we vote Trump out," she said.

The same was true for Priscilla Del Toro, who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and described Biden as "not a perfect candidate."

But Del Toro happily cast her ballot for Biden in Tempe, citing coronavirus as a key reason in her decision.

"As someone who had personally seen the effects of Covid-19 on my family, I think that we need a leader who is really going to step up and care about the American people," said Del Toro, whose parents contracted the virus earlier in the year. "Even now, as we stand here and speak, numbers are surging. So, you can't stay we are almost done, when we are not even close to being done."

The sentiment that Biden voters are more often voting against Trump than for the Democratic nominee is clear in polls: The recent survey of Arizona by CNN found that 48% of Biden supporters are voting against Trump, as opposed to 45% who feel they are voting for the former vice president.

Democratic operatives in Arizona attribute this to Trump's handling of the coronavirus.

Jacob Martinez, a 19-year old who was formerly the chairman of the Arizona Teenage Republicans, left the party because of the President and is now working as a Democratic organizer during his sophomore year at Arizona State University.

"Covid has been a big factor in getting people even more energized than they already were," said Martinez. "Arizona was the country's hotspot for a good amount of time and even now we are on the rise again."

He added: "At this point, everyone knows someone that has died (of Covid). It speaks to the ineffectiveness of Trump."

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