Arizona an Unlikely Pickup for Obama, Experts Say

Arizona an Unlikely Pickup for Obama, Experts Say

By Alexis Simendinger - June 13, 2012

Soothsayers may try to divine political meaning for President Obama in a Democrat's decisive win Tuesday in a special Arizona House election, but they'd be wrong, say pollsters and political experts.

The race in Arizona's 8th Congressional District to complete the term of popular Gabby Giffords, who retired in January, offers few clues about how Obama could defeat Mitt Romney in a state that hasn't backed a Democrat for president since 1996.

Democrat Ron Barber won handily in a district where there are more registered Republicans than Democrats and half the voters say they disapprove of the job the president is doing. In a contest with a dramatic back story, Barber ran his own race to defeat Tea Party favorite and former Marine Jesse Kelly by six points. The district will face another election for the same House seat in November.

Barber, who was wounded along with Giffords in a January 2011 Tucson shooting, excited Democrats more than Kelly could jazz Republicans, according to an analysis by Public Policy Polling (D). And Barber captured the majority of independents, in part by leaving some daylight between himself and the president.

But as Democrats celebrated a special-election victory, Arizona-watchers said in interviews that the state’s 11 electoral votes seem likely to stay in the red column for Romney. The RCP polling average in Arizona as of late May showed Romney outpacing Obama by six points.

The president’s campaign believes that Obama could turn Arizona blue because a surging Latino demographic is in his corner, the state is polarized about its politicians and key policy debates, and home-state Sen. John McCain is no longer a presidential contender. But Romney has been ahead of Obama among Arizonans, as measured by job approval, support from independent voters, and the backing of white voters, according to a May 23 PPP report.

The president’s team told RCP on Tuesday the campaign has opened six offices in the state, but declined to quantify the staff. A Democratic source in Arizona said the campaign has five paid employees in a state with 3.2 million registered voters. The campaign confirmed it has not advertised in Arizona on radio or TV, although the national party and advocacy organizations have paid for some advertising.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina’s most recent electoral map, shared with Obama supporters via YouTube, showed Arizona in pink -- leaning Republican. Campaign spokespeople said this week they never marked it as a battleground, but the state remains an “interesting prospect” and an “opportunity” for the president to “be competitive” for the first time in a place that was off-limits four years ago because of McCain’s candidacy. “No one here thinks Arizona is a walk in the park,” a campaign staff member told RCP, speaking on background Tuesday.

Asked about the president’s ambition to capture his home state, McCain said, “I want him to come to Arizona and spend as much money as he possibly can. We need to saturate the airwaves, and good luck to him. As far as I know now, it’s a tossup.” A second later, he told RCP, “I am confident that Arizona will be in the Romney column.”

As for Romney’s poor showing in recent polls among Latino voters in Arizona and nationally, McCain said the Republican ticket must have “a humane attitude towards the issue of illegal immigration. Hopefully we can move on things like the DREAM Act” -- a possibility given that Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio continues to seek a compromise, he noted.

Rubio, a potential vice presidential contender, is trying to modify a Democratic measure that would offer a path to citizenship to the undocumented children of illegal immigrants if the offspring are in college or the military. Rubio backs legal status for such children, rather than citizenship. Romney, who opposes the DREAM Act, has assembled a Hispanic Steering Committee for his campaign, which includes a handful of advisers who support the measure.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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