Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects of the 2020 campaign season, including the race for the White House and key elections around the country.
Most presidential elections come down to a small number of battleground states that decide who will occupy the White House. For 2020, consensus is rapidly forming that those key states will be Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which collectively award 101 Electoral College votes. In my last article I analyzed the four states in this group with Democratic governors and the dynamics in play as we head toward Election Day in November. In this article, I look at the two swing states with Republican governors: Arizona and Florida.
Currently, polls in both states show presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden holds a slim lead over President Trump:
When then-candidate Trump won both states in 2016, Arizona was a solidly red state with a Republican monopoly on every statewide office, including both U.S. Senate seats, five of nine U.S. House seats and solid majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature. In the 2018 midterms, the state turned purple, with Democrats flipping three statewide offices, a congressional seat, a handful of state legislative seats and winning a U.S. Senate seat for the first time in 30 years. At the same time, incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey was reelected.
Florida, on the other hand, is the perennial swing state for presidential elections. In the 2018 midterms, it remained purple, with Republicans narrowly holding on to the governor’s office and defeating the incumbent Democratic U.S. senator. While at the same time, Democrats picked up a statewide office by winning the commissioner of agriculture race. Democrats also flipped a handful of seats in the state legislature, as well as two congressional seats.
President Trump faces a dual challenge as he tries to secure Florida and Arizona’s combined 40 electoral votes. The first is that in both states the suburban populations drifted away from the Republican party in 2018. In Arizona, for example, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its sprawling suburbs, has historically been fertile ground for Republicans and the base for their decades of dominance in the state. However, in 2018, 88 Republican precincts in Maricopa County went for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the Senate race. This shift seems ongoing as a recent poll shows the president down by 13 points to Biden in Maricopa County.
The second challenge is the coronavirus pandemic, which looks increasingly to be the single most important issue of 2020. If the election ends up being a referendum on President Trump’s response to the crisis, he will need to improve perceptions of his management in both states. As of an April 30 poll of all 50 states, the president’s approval rating for his handling of the pandemic stands at 45% in Arizona and 47% in Florida. Arizona Governor Ducey, meanwhile, has a 60% approval rating, while Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida stands at 52%. President Trump would need to lean on both governors to help improve his electoral position.
Further complicating the coronavirus dynamics in these two Sun Belt states is that both are retirement destinations for America’s baby boomers. Florida’s 65+ population is 20.5% of the state, while Arizona’s is 17.5%. In 2016, Trump won the 65+ age category nationwide by more than 13%. In recent head-to-head national surveys, he is either breaking even with Joe Biden among seniors or is slightly losing this important age group. Such a shift could put Arizona and Florida, and therefore the White House, into Biden’s column if it remains true come November.
The last point worth noting is that Arizona will be the site of the most hotly contested, and likely the most expensive, Senate race in the country. Republican U.S. Senator Martha McSally is viewed as one of the top endangered incumbents. McSally’s challenger, retired naval aviator and astronaut Mark Kelly, has amassed a substantial cash advantage and has maintained a distinct polling lead for several months. A recent survey showed him beating McSally 51-38, and winning Maricopa County by 18 points. Even though President Trump maintains strong enthusiasm from his base, a premier Senate election has Arizona Democrats highly interested in holding both the state’s Senate seats for the first time since 1952.
None of this provides a clear forecast for November, but merely a snapshot in time based on recent data and trends. President Trump has built a significant war chest and campaign machine that has yet to be fully used. Joe Biden, meanwhile, is racing to close the funding gap and assemble his own national operation to effectively compete.
The time between May and November is a lifetime in an election, but the endgame for the candidates is starting to unfold.
Mike Sistak is director of grassroots program development at the American Farm Bureau Federation.