On Election Day, Arizona remained a red state — electing Sheriff Joe Arpaio to a sixth term in office, Republican Jeff Flake to the U.S. Senate, and voting for Mitt Romney for president — while its neighbors, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, went blue for President Obama. According to political pundits, the reason those states voted Democrat this year was because of their fast-growing Latino populations. If having a large Latino population was all a state needed to turn blue, then Arizona, which is almost one-third Latino, should have been blue, too. But it wasn’t. Why not?
To understand why those states are blue, visualize a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is history. History provides a story. Many New Mexicans, for example, can trace their roots to Spanish settlers who settled the land well before New Mexico became part of the United States. Latinos in Colorado and California can do the same.
This history supplies a narrative for politicians seeking public office. When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, he frequently recounted how he could trace his family history back to the people who originally settled Colorado. His message connected with his fellow Coloradans, who could place themselves in a similar historical context. People who run for public office in these states insert themselves into their states’ existing narratives, and voters project their own similar story onto the candidate.
Political movements grow from and organize around a shared history, which erects the next stage of the pyramid: political infrastructure. Latino and Democratic Party leaders in California, in the 1980s, noticed the demographics in red-state California were changing. Having a shared history and understanding historical trends, they designed a political infrastructure to harness this changing demographic, which later helped to elect scores of Latino candidates and turned the state blue. For the past 10 years, U.S. Senator Harry Reid and the Culinary Workers Union assembled a political infrastructure that harnessed Nevada’s growing Latino population and got him reelected in 2010, despite a strong challenge from a Tea Party candidate.
Political infrastructure informs messaging and media, the next level of the pyramid. Before this election cycle, New Mexico experimented with messaging and figured out how to reach its diverse Latino population. They created messages that moved beyond “Sí, se puede” (Yes, we can) and which appealed to first-generation Latinos as well as to sixth-generation Latinos, resulting in greater voter turnout. New Mexicans, in other words, did not treat Latinos as a static or homogenous group, and took steps to ensure their message appealed across generational lines.
At the top of the pyramid is the elected official. This is the least important part of the pyramid because having a durable pyramid makes it easy to seamlessly change from leader to leader. This explains why New Mexico remains blue even though Democratic Latino Governor Bill Richardson was replaced by Susana Martinez, a Republican Latina governor.
Arizona’s pyramid lacks these elements; at best, it’s an inverted pyramid. Arizonans’ history bends toward conservatism; it’s rooted in the conservative politics of U.S. Senator and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor. Republican candidates often invoke Goldwater’s name in their political narrative; they link themselves to these historical figures. Democratic candidates, of course, cannot insert themselves into this narrative; as a result, when Democratic Party leaders find a candidate to support, they attempt to build a history to fit that candidate’s personal story. But manufacturing history this way creates a disconnect between the candidate and the electorate. Part of the reason for this historical gap is that many Arizona residents are transplants from other states. (Arizona residents often remark that it’s rare to find a native of Arizona.)
Arizona, furthermore, does not have a Democratic leader like Harry Reid (who has deep roots in Nevada) with the stability, power, and political contacts to harness and organize the large Latino population in Arizona. Without a strong political infrastructure, Arizona Democrats are fragmented, and tend to be more reactive than proactive, and this fragmentation affects messaging. When Sheriff Arpaio, who is a master at messaging, went on television to discuss his “crime suppression sweeps,” (a.k.a. immigration raids) liberals botched at constructing a message that resonated beyond the immigrant population. Whatever message was finally communicated, it was (and has been) ineffective at changing the policy.
At this year’s Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party released a list of the top 20 Latino leaders in the United States. Despite the large Latino population, no one from Arizona was on that list. Part of the reason for this is the instability of the pyramid. If Arizonans wish to turn their state blue in the next election cycle, they will need to understand the deficiencies within the pyramid. If they do not, they shouldn’t be surprised when Sheriff Arpaio is reelected to a seventh term as sheriff.
Juan Rocha is a criminal defense attorney in Tucson and holds a JD from UCLA and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Chicago.