Bob Aggarwal is a rare species in this year’s U.S. presidential election: an undecided voter.
A commercial banker in Scottsdale, Ariz., Mr. Aggarwal supported Barack Obama before voting for Donald Trump in 2016.
Since then, he has seen how the economy flourished before the pandemic. Companies flocked to Maricopa County – the sprawling suburbs encompassing Phoenix and Scottsdale – and Mr. Aggarwal has done well financing their business expansions and real estate deals. The region’s economy even appears to have weathered the COVID-19 shutdowns, he says.
But as a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from India, Mr. Aggarwal also supports equality and the Black Lives Matter movement. He is uneasy with Mr. Trump’s rhetoric attacking immigrants and casting racial-justice protesters as violent radicals.
His 13-year-old daughter, inspired that California Senator Kamala Harris could become the first female vice-president of Indian heritage, wants him to vote for Joe Biden.
So, with just weeks to go before the election, Mr. Aggarwal is struggling to pick a presidential candidate.
“I tell my wife we’ve probably got to vote in the direction that’s going to favour us from [an economic] standpoint, regardless of what the other platforms say,” Mr. Aggarwal said as he watched his son play soccer in a Scottsdale park. “But I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that really, when I say it. So I’m torn.”
When the ballots are counted after the Nov. 3 election, it is moderate suburban voters like Mr. Aggarwal who could be the deciding factor.
Mr. Trump is staking his re-election on once again mobilizing the Republican base of white working-class and rural voters who sent him to the White House in 2016. Democrats are hoping Mr. Biden can inspire a winning coalition of racially diverse and urban voters who failed to turn out for Hillary Clinton.
Those battle lines meet in suburbs like Maricopa County and others in the traditionally conservative Sun Belt – the temperate southern region stretching from Florida to California – where an influx of new residents is quickly reshaping the political landscape.
Mr. Trump narrowly won the suburbs in 2016. But many of those same voters delivered him a swift rebuke in the midterms two years later, helping Democrats regain a majority in the House of Representatives. That year, voters in Maricopa County were largely responsible for Arizona sending its first Democratic senator to Washington in three decades. Recent polls suggest a close presidential race in Arizona, though one that has widened in favour of Mr. Biden. Should the former vice-president win, it will be only the second time Arizona has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 70 years.
Academics who study the shifting politics of suburban America point to the changing nature of the suburbs themselves. As workers – including large numbers of college-educated professionals – migrate to suburbs around the big cities of the South and West, those communities are increasingly resembling the cities they border, says Robert Lang, a professor of public policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The construction of light-rail systems and other transportation links that shuttle suburbanites into neighbouring cities has encouraged the development of high-density, mixed-use neighbourhoods around train stations, urbanizing what were once uniformly middle-class neighbourhoods of single-family homes. Those neighbourhoods, in turn, have attracted a greater diversity of residents: lower-income renters mixing with young families and residents of retirement communities.
“There’s a myth that the suburbs are financially stable, white communities and that’s not true,” said Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona who studies how voters form their political attitudes. “The suburbs are really diverse – and that may be especially true in Arizona.”
As they have grown to become more urban and more diverse, suburbs have also become more politically aligned with nearby cities than the rural regions and small cities elsewhere in their states, experts say.
“Those suburbs are urban enough to be in the urban mix,” said Prof. Lang, who co-authored Blue Metros, Red States, a book released this month that examines the political realignment taking place in many suburbs. “There’s enough of them and they’re growing fast enough that they’re changing the dynamic of the country.”
That phenomenon is not happening everywhere, particularly not in the slow-growing Midwestern suburbs of cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland. But it is playing out in in the suburbs of Texas, North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado – fast-growing regions that once delivered reliable majorities for Republicans.
Maricopa County embodies many of these changes. The region is home to more than 60 per cent of Arizona’s population and nearly two-thirds of its registered voters. It started a light-rail system in 2008 that runs 45-kilometres from Phoenix through the communities of Tempe and Mesa and is currently undergoing its third expansion in little more than a decade. Developers have flocked to the downtowns of Phoenix and Scottsdale to build mixed-use neighbourhoods of high-rise condos, rental apartments, retail and dining.
The region’s population has increased by 700,000 in the past decade – making it the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. That population growth is being fuelled by rising numbers of Latino families and an influx of workers from liberal states such as California and Illinois drawn to jobs at PayPal, Intel, Wells Fargo and an array of head offices for insurance, medical and defence firms. Many are bringing their politics with them.
Giovanni Bray, 27, moved to the Phoenix area from Milwaukee, Wis., in early September, only a few weeks after protests erupted over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha, Wis.
He came at the urging of his mother, who had moved three months earlier to Chandler, a middle-class suburb of Phoenix known for its good schools and ample jobs in the corporate offices lining the Price Road Corridor. “It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. Everyone keeps to themselves,” he said. “It’s a place where you can grow and prosper and make your own money and be at peace.”
Mr. Bray, who is Black, graduated earlier this year from Stillman College, a historically Black school, with plans to become a physical therapist, though he’s now working at an auto-parts store.
Coming from Milwaukee, he says he is worried about the heated debate over police brutality and racial justice, but mainly he is concerned about his economic prospects.
Yet when Mr. Bray brings up economic issues, he does not sound like Mr. Aggarwal, whose preference for tax cuts and low interest rates is nudging him toward Mr. Trump. Instead, Mr. Bray worries about growing income inequality, fears that are pushing him toward Mr. Biden. “I want the economy to be where it’s balanced to the point where a lower-class person is just as well off as the middle class,” he said. “I don’t want there to be a lower class.”
The influx of new residents from more liberal parts of the country has caused tensions among some long-time residents of Maricopa County, who fear that newcomers attracted by Arizona’s low taxes and affordable-housing costs will end up voting for policies that destroy both.
“California is run by Democrats. There’s no Republicans anywhere,” said Jim Borchardt, 60, a Trump supporter from Chandler who works as a helicopter mechanic and is worried about the future of his retirement. He knows of at least two families that have moved into his neighbourhood recently from California. “We’re concerned that they’re going to bring that here and turn Arizona into California.”
Two state-level proposals on the ballot in November speak to those political tensions. Analysts expect a measure to legalize marijuana to bring out conservative voters opposed to the idea. Meanwhile, a proposed tax hike on those making more than $250,000 – to pay for public schools – is expected to pass because of widespread support from young families moving into the region in search of good education options.
Mr. Trump has staked his re-election campaign on messages designed to appeal to conservative suburban voters: touting the country’s economic growth in the years before COVID-19 threatened to plunge the U.S. into an extended recession, and warning that Democrats will defund suburban police departments.
“The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me. They want safety,” the President tweeted in August, adding that “low income housing would invade their neighborhood” if Mr. Biden got elected.
In Maricopa County similar messages have shown up on freeway billboards that read: “Moms trust police. Police trust Trump” and in television ads in which women call 911 only to be told: “To report a rape, please press 1. To report a murder, press 2.”
Law and order messages do resonate with some voters, says Prof. Klar, the University of Arizona political scientist. But Arizonans are far more concerned with how the presidential candidates propose handling a pandemic that has closed schools and shuttered businesses.
Worry about violent protests going on in some U.S. cities “is an issue where Republicans in Arizona agree with Trump, and maybe agree with what he’s been doing and saying,” she said. “But it’s also not even close to the most important issue to them.”
Dog-whistle messages about low-income housing invading single-family neighbourhoods go over particularly poorly in urbanizing communities such as Scottsdale, Prof. Lang says. Here, suburban women are more likely to be school principals and partners in law firms than housewives, he says. Such voters may still be conservative on some issues, but they also tend to be tolerant and open to racial diversity.
“They say: ‘Hey I live in this diverse world. I’ve accepted diversity. I see it at work. I see it in my community. I don’t want to have this hostility toward people,’ ” he said. “They don’t feel very secure with a [President] who is dividing their community.”
Scottsdale’s Sean Geraghty, 59, describes himself as an "independent-thinking, socially liberal and fiscally conservative” voter who plans to vote for Mr. Biden.
A data scientist who once worked for Nortel Networks, Mr. Geraghty is concerned that Mr. Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric is needlessly trying to stoke racial animosity in communities like his. “There’s racial inequality in this world,” he said. “There are people who try to deny that for political purposes. And that’s just wrong.”
Recently, Mr. Geraghty’s 15-year-old son, who runs track and field, told him of a fellow teammate who wasn’t allowed to run with him in the evenings, when the searing Arizona temperatures cool down enough to safely exercise. His teammate, who is African-American, said his parents felt it was too dangerous for a Black teenage boy to be on the streets after dark.
“I don’t give a second thought for my son to run at night. But when he’s telling me this story about his friend, it’s like wow, even to this day African-American parents have to teach their kids how to behave,” he said. “My kids do not have to have those same lessons.”
One consequence of Mr. Trump’s racially charged rhetoric is to turn off moderate conservative voters in Maricopa County who might otherwise be willing to support a Republican president.
Republicans still hold a slight advantage in voter registrations in the county. Many gravitated to the party because of its ethos of individual freedom and strong national defence, but don’t embrace the culture wars that appeal to Mr. Trump’s base.
“It’s not just demographic changes. You don’t go from Mitt Romney winning [the county] by 12 per cent, to Donald Trump winning by 3.5 per cent in just the space of a couple of years,” said Jeff Flake, the former Republican senator from Arizona. “There is a kind of aversion to Trumpian politics, which is, I think, a credit to the citizens of Arizona.”
Republicans and Democrats in Arizona both view their state parties as more moderate than their national counterparts, Prof. Klar says. More importantly, voters tend to view themselves as more moderate, even if they don’t always fall in the centre of the ideological spectrum on every issue.
That is particularly true among political independents – who make up nearly a third of Maricopa County’s registered voters. People who register as independents are often just as partisan as card-carrying party members, but tend to dislike the polarizing political battles, said Prof. Klar, co-author of Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction.
“What really turns off independent voters is the sort of aggressive rhetoric, the insurmountable conflict between the two parties,” she said. “These are the kinds of things that make people who do have partisan preferences tell others that they’re independent."
Voters in Maricopa County repeatedly express disdain for Mr. Trump’s personality and the partisanship that has engulfed national politics. But many also don’t seem to have been convinced to support Mr. Biden.
“It’s the rhetoric. The state of the country right now is kind of weird,” said Steve Hosfield, an engineer at a telecommunications company who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but is on the fence this year. He faults both parties for feeding into the partisan divide. “Biden blames Trump. Trump blames Biden,” said Mr. Hosfield, who lives in Chandler. “But I don’t see either one of them doing anything about it.”
Jaime Thomas, a lifelong Republican who moved to Phoenix from Atlanta seven years ago, plans to vote for Martha McSally, the Republican running for one of Arizona’s seats in the U.S. Senate, but leave her vote for president blank.
She doesn’t support Mr. Biden, whom she considers to be someone with little to show for 40 years in office. But she also doesn’t like Mr. Trump’s demeanor. “I wish he would stay off Twitter,” said Ms. Thomas, who considers herself a libertarian. “I think that he thinks it’s a way of connecting with voters. But I feel like in a lot of cases, less is more.”
Ultimately, the results in Maricopa County might turn on how many Republican voters like Ms. Thomas are planning to sit out this presidential election. “The risk for Republicans in Arizona is that Republican voters are just not going to turn out if they’re not excited about their candidates," Prof Klar said.
In some cases, Republican voters in the region have started campaigning for the other side.
Steven Jackson, 35, grew up in Illinois and spent years in Hawaii after joining the U.S. Army, where he was seriously injured during a 2008 deployment to Iraq.
In 2010, he followed his ex-wife to Arizona, where he now works as an estate-planning and probate lawyer in Scottsdale.
A Republican for much of his life, Mr. Jackson said he was drawn to the party’s positions on national security and foreign policy. He voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008 and worked on campaigns for moderate Republican candidates in Arizona.
But he has felt increasingly alienated from the party as it has moved toward the right, a political evolution that has been hastened by the Trump presidency. So this year, Mr. Jackson began volunteering to conduct voter outreach for Democrats.
“For years, I was like: ‘It will come back to the middle. It will come back to the middle,’ ” he said of the Republican Party. “I don’t think a lot of Republicans could see how far right things had become until Trump became President.”
Despite Republican rhetoric painting Mr. Biden as beholden to the radical left, Democrats have found some success running centrist candidates in Arizona, while moderate Republicans have often faced gruelling primaries against more extreme challengers.
In 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema narrowly won the U.S. Senate race against Ms. McSally. Ms. Sinema touted herself as an independent. Ms. McSally, who had a reputation as a moderate when she served in U.S. Congress, ran a campaign that embraced Mr. Trump – a position she adopted after struggling through a primary against two right-wing competitors, one of whom is now the chair of the Arizona Republican Party.
That dynamic is playing itself out once again this year. Ms. McSally, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant when John McCain died in 2018, is again running a campaign that echoes much of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.
Her Democratic competitor, Mark Kelly, is an astronaut married to former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in a 2011 ambush during a political event in Tucson. He is largely following Ms. Sinema’s 2018 playbook by framing himself “Not as a partisan, but as a patriot.”
He now leads Ms. McSally by roughly 10 percentage points in polls. If Mr. Kelly wins, it will be the first time Arizona has sent two Democrats to the Senate in almost 70 years.
Mr. Flake, whose former seat Ms. Sinema won in 2018, sees his party’s embrace of Trumpian politics as particularly damaging to Republican’s prospects in suburbs like Maricopa County.
Republicans once ran competitive moderate candidates here, backed by money from local business groups. But as the party has shifted right under Mr. Trump, the business community has stopped donating, alienated by the party’s embrace of anti-immigrant, protectionist policies. That has forced many congressional candidates to turn to the national Republican Party for funding – requiring them to pledge their loyalty to Mr. Trump.
“That’s a vicious cycle that many of the states are in now,” Mr. Flake said. “The President has made it very difficult down-ballot.”
He fears that Mr. Trump is forcing Republicans into a losing “demographic cul-de-sac” of older, white voters who no longer reflect the views of their rapidly diversifying country. “If we have four more years of the President, wow, I mean Texas could go blue by then,” he said. “And try to win nationally when Texas, New York and California are reliably blue.”
Some political analysts see an opportunity for Mr. Trump and Republicans to regain the healthy electoral majorities they once won easily in places like Maricopa County. But that would require ditching the divisive social issues and returning to the bread-and-butter policies that matter to many suburban voters.
“The message they could switch on would be the end of this sort of stridency on race,” Prof. Lang said. “They have to come out and say: We’re going to move on with our message about free enterprise and not try to gin up the white base.”
For voters like Bob Aggarwal, who says he no longer watches the news because it has become too politically polarized, time is running out for the presidential campaigns to capture his vote.
Asked whether there is something either candidate could do or say to sway him, Mr. Aggarwal falls into a lengthy silence. “There should be,” he said finally. “I should have something that should convince me. I just care for what’s best for my kids.”
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