© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Trump is Skipping Major Cities in the Campaign's Closing Stretch

A line snakes around the building at an early voting site in Prescott, Arizona.
Kirk Siegler
A line snakes around the building at an early voting site in Prescott, Arizona.

It used to be conventional wisdom that if you win Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County, you probably win Arizona.

But this is 2020 and all bets are off. President Trump and his campaign advisors apparently see a path to victory in Arizona without picking up the state's most populous county.

Famously home to the anti-immigration sheriff Joe Arpaio and conservative snowbirds, Maricopa County was once reliably red. But in 2016, Trump won the county by less than three points. And polls now show Vice President Biden ahead, as more Latinos come of voting age and new growth from out of state is tilting Phoenix blue.

"What that means is that if you're looking for a win in Arizona, the rural vote may be the deciding factor," says Scott Smith, the former mayor of Mesa who ran for Governor as a Republican in 2014.

Smith says if the election is close, Trump could win Arizona by holding down his losses in cities and getting a big rural turnout.

"I don't know if the numbers work out that way," Smith says. "But we've seen some interesting results in statewide elections over the last two to three election cycles that would say that's not an absurd strategy."

A hundred miles to the north of the nation's fifth largest city, the Biden-Harris signs that line busy Phoenix thoroughfares start to give way to the horse farms, pastures and long driveways where blue MAGA flags are fixtures.

In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a 2 to 1 margin in Yavapai County. Nationwide, Trump's win was credited partly to a large rural and working class turnout in battleground states in particular.

"I'm sticking with President Trump because he pulled us out of the gutter and got us on track," says Laurie Holton, of Dewey, Ariz.

Outside an early voting station in the county seat of Prescott one afternoon, Holton said the economy, and rebounding from the COVID lockdowns, are top on her mind.

"It's a shame because so many people want to blame the economy now on him," she said.

Aside from the lockdowns, 2020 has been a particularly stressful year for Holton. Her husband had a bad accident, suffering brain damage. She's now working officially as his caregiver. The insurance he had through work wasn't great, and the couple is relieved to be on Medicaid, the subsidized federal health insurance program.

"Medicaid came to the rescue and has really helped us," Holton said.

The Trump administration is in court trying to overturn President Obama's Affordable Care Act - and its Medicaid expansions and protections for pre-existing conditions. Holton conceded that was concerning. But it apparently isn't a deciding factor in her vote, a testament to how strong the President's base still is in more rural places like this.

Trump staged a large rally recently in Prescott and was back in Arizona this week for two more, again skipping major cities.

2016 made clear that the Electoral College skews heavily in favor of conservative-leaning rural America. But meanwhile, that hasn't translated into either presidential candidate talking much about rural issues apart from the occasional mention of fracking or trade wars. This has long been a complaint of rural voters, who say national politicians promise fixes, only to get here and find out that the problems are complex and not solvable over one election cycle.

Rural America is also not one monolithic place, nor are its voters, a sign that Trump's late hour strategy could also be a bit of a gamble in some states.

"We are not uneducated, we are not unpolitical, we understand what's going on," says voter Rosemary Dixon. "It's a big mistake for candidates federally to ignore us."

Nevertheless, at a coffee shop in downtown Prescott, Dixon expressed frustration watching many of her neighbors doubling down for President Trump. For her, health care is also a big issue. She's 62 and gets her insurance from the Obamacare exchanges, at least for now.

She had to have a kidney transplant a few years ago.

"They say they are going to protect pre-existing conditions but I don't think I believe that at this point," Dixon said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.