How Joe Biden Hopes to Beat Donald Trump in Arizona by Using the Playbook That Took Down Sheriff Joe Arpaio

With Joe Biden looking to expand the electoral map and shock the country by turning Arizona blue for the first time since 1996, his presidential campaign hopes to use the playbook that beat controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio in the state's largest county in 2016.

Energized Latinos and immigrants, as well as disaffected independents and Republicans, were key to Arpaio's loss, and the Biden campaign and its allies say that is the blueprint to defeat President Donald Trump too.

"I've been telling this to everyone," Representative Ruben Gallego, a key Biden surrogate in Arizona, told Newsweek. "The coalition that beat Arpaio is going to beat Trump."

Jen O'Malley Dillon, Biden's campaign manager, said recently that Arizona was the top battleground in 2020. "We are not only ahead but we have a strong opportunity there to build our pathway to victory," she said during a reporters' call.

Dillon detailed that pathway during a National Finance Committee retreat in mid-May that featured the campaign's top 200 contribution bundlers through Zoom videoconferences. She spoke about the increase in Democratic voter share from 2016 to 2018, pinpointing voters in Maricopa County, and increased turnout among Latino voters under 30, a source familiar with the retreat told Newsweek.

The Real Clear Politics average of Arizona polls shows Biden winning by 4 points, in a state Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by 3.5 percent.

trump arpaio
Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, endorses GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump before a rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, on January 26, 2016. Scott Olson/Getty Images/Getty

Arizona still leans Republican, according to voter registration figures, but the edge has tightened since 2016, political observers of both parties say, driven by changes in the suburbs among the independents and Republicans Trump will need to win.

Last week, an OH Predictive Insights poll showed one of the top Senate races in the country getting away from Republicans, with Democrat Mark Kelly beating Martha McSally, 51 percent to 38 percent. The polling firm said Arpaio's race against Democrat Paul Penzone in 2016, as well as the 2018 Senate race between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and McSally, are instructive in understanding an evolving state.

"The Arpaio-Penzone race is a symptom of the larger trend we have been seeing in Arizona and nationwide, of the suburbs moving away from being as reliably Republican as they have been in the past," the pollsters wrote in an email. They added that the trend appeared in many Trump precincts that Penzone ended up winning in 2016; in these northeast Phoenix suburbs, Sinema was victorious two years later.

The Biden campaign says it's well positioned in Arizona because it left a strong infrastructure in place following its mid-March primary win and has been engaging Latinos in the state. It held a roundtable with Gallego and Democrats in the Arizona Legislature on the public health impacts of COVID-19 within the Latino community, as well as three virtual events—with the former vice president's wife, Jill, and Tucson-based Latina leaders—and Phoenix-focused organizing events. At the latter, they launched a "Charla con Biden" program, which are chats where Latino residents can talk about what's on their mind, from the health crisis to educating their child.

Gallego joked that the campaign is working him like a dog in the state, where he is soon starting Latinos for Biden Arizona. Critically, he is also putting together his get out the vote plan and coordinating digital ad buys with the campaign to target young, infrequent Latino voters.

While reaching Latinos during a pandemic may be difficult in some states, Democrats said that in Arizona a permanent early-voter list provides a blueprint for identifying voters to contact before the election.

For his part, Trump visited an Arizona mask-making plant on May 5. Speaking on behalf of the president's campaign, the Republican National Committee said it changed its ground efforts in March to make them fully virtual and said it's training activists similar to the "Obama model" in 2008 and 2012 so that people within communities push their neighbors to vote for Trump. Between phone calls and door knocks, the RNC said it has made 1.4 million voter contacts and will have 70 staffers on the ground by June 1.

The RNC said it's focused on reaching the 180,000 Trump voters who voted in 2016 but sat out 2018. It also touted its data capability, which consists of 3,000 possible data points and includes such details as whether the voter is a member of a yoga studio.

Humorously, the Biden campaign is also keyed in on yoga, using it as an organizing tool because one "super volunteer" is a yoga instructor who uses Zoom to do yoga events for the campaign.

Beyond fighting for drop-off voters and the yogi vote, Arizona data show that priorities among the electorate have changed during the pandemic in a way that could spell trouble for Trump on one of his favorite issues: immigration.

Chuck Coughlin, who served as a campaign manager and adviser for former Republican Governor Jan Brewer, told Newsweek his company's polling shows that 60 percent of the electorate views coronavirus as a crisis or major policy issue, followed by education and then immigration.

"The bottom fell out on immigration," OH Predictive Insights pollster Jacob Joss said of a separate May poll from his firm that showed immigration is not among the top three issues for Arizonans for the first time since the company began asking the question, in February 2019.

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Courtesy OH Predictive Insights

With the issue dropping as a concern for voters amid an unprecedented health crisis, the immigration rhetoric and hard-line views that have been a go-to for both Trump and Arpaio may hold less sway.

"Fears and demagoguery have been part of the Trump-Arpaio playbook, but it's not the top issue for Arizonans right now," Arizona Democratic lawyer and donor Roy Herrera told Newsweek. "If it's been replaced by the economy and public health concerns, will cries about the border wall and immigration be effective? The answer is no."

Perhaps recognizing a changing Arizona, the Trump campaign has sought to distance itself from the former sheriff, whom the president pardoned in 2017. Back then, the White House said Arpaio's "life's work" was "protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration," after the 87-year-old was found guilty of criminal contempt of court for refusing to stop racially profiling and illegally detaining Latinos, many of whom were U.S. citizens.

Reached at his home by Newsweek, Arpaio unfurled the kind of trademark rant that used to work for him and Republicans in the state, but may no longer.

Blaming his loss on liberal donor George Soros, and the Obama Justice Department, he sought to tie immigration to swine flu concerns during the Obama years and said he was "concerned about illegals carrying disease."