How did Biden win Arizona? Map of Maricopa County's votes reveals one key path to victory

President-elect Joe Biden

President-elect Joe Biden’s historic — and narrow — victory in Arizona is owed to a coalition of different demographic groups, defying easy credit for the state’s tilt to Democrats by the tiniest of margins.

But one area that proved decisive was a swath of Republican and independent-leaning precincts in metro Phoenix along Loop 101, from north Phoenix and Scottsdale south through Gilbert and Chandler, an Arizona Republic analysis shows.

Biden flipped precincts that voted for President Donald Trump by small margins in 2016, turning them into decisive wins for the Democrat, while precincts Trump had won by 6 or 8 percentage points four years ago became small Biden wins.

This leftward shift helped Democrats carry Arizona for only the second time since 1948. Biden's 0.3 percentage-point margin is easily the closest presidential contest in state history.

“I don't think any one group can say, ‘It's because of us,’” said Ron Ober, a Democratic campaign consultant in Phoenix. “I think the Latino vote was important. I think the Native American vote was important. I think the labor vote was important. And certainly, Cindy McCain made a huge contribution to this happening.”

In north Phoenix, Scottsdale and Chandler, Biden won traditionally Republican precincts that voted for Trump in 2016 by a fairly large margin.

In more independent-leaning areas between Peoria Avenue and Union Hills Drive, from the West Valley to State Route 51, Biden reversed Trump wins and turned them into tallies that went decisively for the president-elect.

Biden took Republican precincts in Scottsdale off of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard east of Loop 101 and farther south took the McCormick Ranch and Mohave precincts on both sides of Indian Bend Drive. 

Biden’s reversal of the 2016 results continued south down Loop 101, flipping five precincts in north Gilbert and eight precincts in Chandler  — seven of them with Republican registration advantages.

These independent and Republican-leaning areas are more educated and affluent than the state as a whole — a demographic that in years past had broken for Republicans, but swung to Democrats in the Trump era. 

In all, Biden flipped 60 precincts in Maricopa County that Trump won in 2016. By contrast, Trump reversed the result in only one precinct won by Hillary Clinton four years ago. And in that precinct only 24 ballots were cast.

Democratic consultant Chad Campbell said Trump's inability to flip precincts reflects how the president spent "four years doing nothing to appeal to anyone outside his base."

"And quite frankly, many of the folks who voted for him in 2016, a lot of those people voted more against the Democratic nominee as opposed to voting for Trump," Campbell said. 

Chuck Coughlin, a Republican consultant, said the results in those precincts show that “'Trump red' doesn’t win in Maricopa County" — that Trump's divisive appeals to his base hurt him in swing districts this cycle.

Coughlin said the results in independent and Republican-leaning precincts show a path for Democrats to continue to make Maricopa County a “swing place” in Arizona elections.

The precincts running “all the way down the 101 corridor into Chandler” are filled with voters who are more affluent and moderate — either center-right or independent voters — with plenty of female voters, Coughlin said. These voters have become the swing voters in Maricopa County, he said. 

In the 111 precincts in Maricopa County where there is a plurality or majority of independent registered voters, Biden won 85 of those precincts, or 76.6%.

Of the 223 precincts where the Democrats had a plurality or majority in voter registration, Biden won every single precinct. 

In the 405 precincts where Republicans had a plurality or majority of registered voters, Biden won 73 of those precincts, or 18%.

Coughlin said many of the voters in precincts along Loop 101 also split their vote between Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Gov. Doug Ducey in the 2018 Senate and gubernatorial elections.

“You cannot win a statewide election if you lose Maricopa County. Either party needs to understand that,” he said. “The key to winning Maricopa County is obviously different than winning a primary. … If Trump red and (Nancy) Pelosi blue doesn’t work, then what’s your shade?”

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Although voters in these precincts cast their ballots for Democrats at the top of the ticket, in some cases they voted for Republicans in county races and for Congress. 

In the 60 precincts Biden flipped, half voted for Republican County Attorney Allister Adel and half voted for Democratic challenger Julie Gunnigle. About two-thirds voted for Democratic County Recorder Adrian Fontes, while the rest voted for his Republican challenger, Stephen Richer, who won the race narrowly.

Voters in those precincts narrowly backed Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs but broke sharply for Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, who fell short in her bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. David Schweikert around Scottsdale. 

Voters in predominantly Latino precincts voted in higher numbers than previously seen, though they were less uniformly Democratic. In fact, Trump’s 2020 margins were better in south Phoenix and Maryvale than they were against Hillary Clinton four years ago. Trump still lost precincts in those areas by huge amounts, but the margins narrowed.

Campbell said this is a trend that Democrats need to address.

"There are conversations about this taking place not just in Arizona but in other parts of the country about some of the outreach issues with the Biden campaign in the Latino community and some of the growing appeal in certain parts of the Latino population, mainly males, to Donald Trump," Campbell said.

As a group, seniors in the Sun City area voted less solidly for Trump. He still won these areas but not by as much as in 2016.

These shifts, along with others, helped Biden pull out a win in Arizona by less than 11,000 votes.

Ober, who was campaign manager for former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., said the close race leaves both parties with work to do.

“Democrats need to do a better job of listening and relating to people who go to Cracker Barrel and Wal-Mart, and Republicans need to do a better job of communicating with soccer moms,” he said. “Both of them have a job to do, and we'll just see who does a better job as time goes on.”

Looked at from different geographies and demographics, Arizona’s race, especially compared with the 2016 contest, offered a result that allowed many constituencies to claim a decisive impact.

But in truth, the race had so many facets to it that Biden’s victory seems best described as one attributable to every vote in every corner of the state.

Voters also appear to have felt they could not sit out the race.

In 2016, there were more third-party options and greater-than-usual numbers for write-in candidates. As a group, those alternative candidates collected 191,000 votes statewide, or 7.3% of the total. This time, unofficial results showed Libertarian Jo Jorgensen with just 1.5%. 

In Maricopa County, the number of people who cast no vote in the presidential race fell by more than half, from 19,256 in 2016, to 8,475 in 2020.

Statewide, Trump’s share of the vote only grew 1 percentage point over his 48% share of the vote in 2016. Meanwhile, Biden’s share topped Clinton’s by 4.8 percentage points.

Arizona's population centers voted very differently than its more rural areas. In 2016, Trump won Maricopa County by 44,000 votes. This year, he lost it by 45,000 votes.

Pima County went even more decisively for Biden than it did for Clinton in 2016. Her 57,000-vote margin became his 97,000-vote edge this year.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s 13 other counties went on balance for Trump by almost 132,000 votes, which improved on his 104,000-vote advantage from four years ago.

Chad Heywood, who was executive director of the Arizona Republican Party from 2013 to 2016, said Pima County continued to be a lost cause for Trump and the GOP. But that was partially offset by Republicans’ growing strength in rural Arizona and exurban Pinal County.

“Rural Arizona, outside of the tribes, has not only become red, but dark red,” Heywood said. “They have become more conservative culturally as the media and urban areas have become more liberal culturally.”

Heywood said all of the results, from the presidential race to the legislative contests, suggest a state that will likely be up for grabs for a while.

“One thing that I've come to realize is that Arizona is a center-right state. It's not a blue or red state. I'd say it's purple,” Heywood said. “People like definitive, absolute answers, but I think it means Arizona is going to be a competitive state for a very long time."

Republic reporter Justin Price contributed to this article.