One of the closest Senate races this cycle is taking place in Arizona between Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for the seat currently held by Senator Jeff Flake. While FiveThirtyEight has Sinema’s chances of winning at about 64 percent, RealClearPolitics has McSally ahead by 0.3 points.
Beyond the impact this race will have on control of the Senate, Arizona is one of those places where the growing Latino population is changing the political dynamics of the state. In 2016, Trump won there by less than half of his margin in Iowa. In addition to that, Obama lost Arizona by 9 points in 2012, a margin that Clinton cut to 4 points in 2016.
That makes the race for an open Senate seat between McSally and Sinema a potential harbinger of things to come. It also makes Arizona an excellent case study in what we do and don’t know about the Latino vote in that state.
Last week I pointed to an article by Leon Krauze suggesting that Democrats have a Latino problem. In it, he referred to the 2016 exit polls suggesting that Trump garnered 29 percent of the Hispanic vote. Those same exit polls reported that, in Arizona, 29 percent of Hispanics voted for Trump. Stephen A. Nuño and Bryan Wilcox-Archuleta took a closer look at the data and found that over 80 percent of Hispanics in Arizona voted for Hillary Clinton, while Trump got less that 15 percent of their votes.
Similarly, reports that Latinos won’t turn out to vote in a state like Arizona seem to be flawed.
In 2008, the U.S. Census reported that 291,000 Latinos voted in Arizona, growing to 400,000 in 2012 and an estimated 550,000 in 2016. That’s a growth rate of 89 percent in just eight years.
While the growth in the Latino voting community is in part a story of demographic growth, it also reflects the hard work of civic groups such as Promise Arizona, Mi Familia Vota and One Arizona, all of whom have been registering and mobilizing Latino voters.
Looking at the last presidential election, the 550,000 Latinos that voted in 2016 made up 23 percent of the total vote cast in Arizona. It is important to keep that in mind when looking at polls in the race between McSally and Sinema. One that showed at tie between the two candidates included 17 percent Latinos, well shy of their representation in 2016.
These same factors could also be having an effect on other states with a high concentration of Latino voters, like Nevada and Texas. As David Damore wrote back in 2012, pollsters have been notoriously wrong when predicting elections in Nevada, consistently underestimating Democratic support and/or overestimating the Republican vote share.
This was most obvious in 2010 when unreliable public polling drove the narrative that Sharron Angle was a lock to defeat US Senate Majority Leader Reid. In 2012, public polling fostered perceptions that Mitt Romney was within striking distance of President Obama (Romney lost Nevada by nearly 7%) and that Shelley Berkley had little chance of defeating Dean Heller in their campaign for the US Senate (Heller escaped with a 11,576 vote, plurality win).
Using some of the same methods that were employed in Arizona, Francisco Pedraza and Bryan Wilcox-Archuleta found that 2016 exit polls missed the mark in both Texas and Nevada as well.
These estimates strongly suggest that the exit poll estimates (61 percent to 34 percent) underestimate Clinton’s strength among Hispanics in Texas…
We find the same thing when we examine precinct data in other states…In Nevada, we estimate that Clinton won more than 80 percent of Latinos as well — even though the exit poll’s estimate is 60 percent.
None of this is meant to suggest that Democrats should pin their hopes for a blue wave on Latino voters or that the polls are somehow skewed. It is simply a fact that pollsters don’t have much reliable data about how to gauge this growing population of voters, so some skepticism is in order.