Just a few weeks ago, Mitt Romney’s campaign team, looking at the schedule of primaries and caucuses, could be forgiven for considering Arizona to be in the bag. Romney had a double-digit poll lead over his nearest rival, a strong organisation in place, the backing of state senator and Republican elder statesman John McCain, and the advantage of a large Mormon population.
Not all Mormons automatically vote for their co-religionist, but in other places where Romney has stood with big Mormon populations they have tended to vote en masse for him: the possibility of a first Mormon president is too big a temptation.
Although Mormons only comprise about 6% of the population of Arizona – though even this is a large enough bloc to make a difference – they make up an even bigger proportion of the Republican party.
In spite of all Romney’s advantages, Rick Santorum has managed to make the state a toss-up, at least according to the polls, which show the two in a dead heat.
Santorum’s apparent surge could be down to the same dislike of Romney witnessed elsewhere round the country, or to Santorum’s more social conservative stance.
Romney was not helped by the row that surfaced over the weekend that saw the co-chair of his Arizona campaign, sheriff Paul Babeu, resign from the post over allegations that he threatened to deport a Mexican ex-boyfriend if he failed to keep quiet about their gay relationship.
The story managed to combine two issues that are emotive in Arizona: gay rights and immigration.
Santorum’s surge may have come too late, however – about a third of Republicans have taken advantage of early voting, many of them before Santorum emerged as a realistic alternative. In Florida, Romney’s superior organisation helped ensure his supporters voted early, a move that helped him to victory. Newt Gingrich had momentum coming out of South Carolina, but some of those in Florida who might have voted for him on the back of that had already cast their votes.
All is not lost for Santorum. A CNN poll on Tuesday indicated that about a third of those likely to vote had still to make up their minds. Neither Gingrich or Ron Paul have made an effort in Arizona, having made up their minds early that they were unlikely to beat Romney.
Paul and – to a lesser extent – Gingrich are playing a numbers game, accumulating a share of delegates from each state to take to the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, in August, where the presidential nominee will be formally chosen. But there is no proportional share of the delegates in Arizona: it is winner-takes-all. The 29 delegates look set to go to Romney or Santorum.
About a quarter of the state is made up of federal land where the Apache, Navajo, Hopi and other American Indians live. Although there are Republicans in these areas, no candidate has made an effort to campaign there, mainly because the population is small, dispersed over such a wide area. Instead, Romney and Santorum have concentrated what little campaigning they have done in the heavily populated areas, almost exclusively in Maricopa county, traditionally a Republican stronghold. About three out of every five Republicans in Arizona live in here.
Maricopa includes Phoenix, which could be the decider, and Romney is well ahead there. Romney, according to polls, is doing better in Phoenix and other cities, where the affluent and relatively moderate conservative voters he attracts tend to be grouped. As a consolation, Santorum is doing better in suburban areas, and Phoenix is surrounded by huge suburbs, almost cities in their own right.
Apart from Phoenix, Santorum also campaigned in Tucson, which traditionally votes Democrat, partly because of its large Latino population. However, Santorum went to Tucson specifically to speak at a Tea Party rally. A smart move, because the Tea Party could, in theory, alter the balance in Santorum’s favour. Arizona has a strong history of libertarianism, and the Tea Party movement found a home there. The Tea Party offered a glimpse of its strength in 2010, when John McCain faced a tough Senate re-election battle as Tea Party members, viewing him as too moderate, tried to have him ousted. Although in the end McCain won comfortably, he was sufficiently worried by Tea Party candidate JD Hayworth to spend more than $3m in advertising – a lot of money for a Republican primary – to see off the threat.
The Tea Party has been torn during the primaries and caucuses this year over whether to back a candidate or remain aloof. If Santorum could persuade enough of them to come over to him, he would be in with a chance.
Romney has been endorsed by McCain, his rival for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. His backing will help with some Republicans but alienate others, such as the Tea Party tendency. One poll showed only 15% would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by McCain as opposed to 30% who regarded it as a negative.
McCain, though he campaigned alongside Romney in earlier contests, has – either by accident or design – not been present in Arizona, instead being off on a Middle East visit.
Carrying more weight would be an endorsement from controversial Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, who is popular with the right for her hardline stance on illegal immigration and gay rights. However, she has so far withheld her blessing.
Brewer is popular among Republicans – T-shirts depicting her stand-off with President Obama last month were on sale at an event where Santorum spoke in Phoenix on Monday. There were T-shirts, too, of sheriff Joe Arpaio, who shares Brewer’s views on illegal immigration and whose endorsement is being sought by Santorum and Gingrich. Arpaio endorsed Texas governor Rick Perry before he withdrew from the race, and Arpaio insisted he is not planning to endorse anyone else before Tuesday’s primary.
Romney has not sought Arpaio’s endorsement. Instead, he secured the endorsement of another sheriff, Babeu, but that might have backfired. It remains a big story in the Arizona media, still running in newspapers and on TV days after Babeu held a press conference to say the allegations were false, and that the only part of the report that was true is he is gay.
Immigration is an emotional issue in a state where Latinos, mainly from Mexico, cross the border in large numbers, even with a fence in place. Both Romney and Santorum take a hard line on illegal immigration, with little to divide them. Gingrich is more liberal, proposing a route to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
But bigger issues for voters, as elsewhere in the US, are jobs, the economy, the housing market and education.