‘The Sleeping Giant Is Finally Awake’

11 min


Tim Alberta

As it turned out, STEPHANIE CRUZ and DULCE PEREZ weren’t working for either party. They weren’t focused on harvesting voter information. Their purpose in the parking lot was simple and straightforward. They wanted people to vote—and that meant bothering people who had just voted. Every time an Arizonan emerged from the polling location, either Cruz or Perez intercepted them on the way to their car. They introduced themselves, explained why voting was more important than ever, and issued a challenge: Text three people, right then and there, reminding them to vote and sharing the location of where the voter had just cast an early ballot. Anyone who complied received a sticker celebrating his or her contribution to civic society.

It struck me as a thankless job. And yet, the excitement Cruz and Perez showed when that perfect stranger sent that third text message—the sheer joy, the sense of a sudden bond—was remarkable. When we got to talking, I asked them about doing such menial work under such punishing conditions. Cruz rolled her eyes. “If our forefathers could do manual labor in this heat,” she told me, “we can stand here in this heat and make sure people remember to vote.”

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Cruz is 19, the ideal age to be an idealist. This is her first time voting for president or any other office. She is a self-described progressive who despises President Donald Trump and wants to make the world a better place one election at a time. That said, defeating Trump this November is not Cruz’s principal objective. She is taking a longer view of politics.

“People like us, young Hispanic activists, we are the ones who will change our community,” Cruz said. “We have registered our family members, even the older people, people who have never voted. Now, they’re not just registered, they’re asking us about issues and telling us who they’re going to vote for. It’s no longer a question of if they’re going to vote. They have already registered. They have already made up their minds. That’s why this year is different.”

Different how?

“The sleeping giant,” Cruz said, “is finally awake.”

This time four years ago, I arrived in Phoenix hoping to answer a simple yet elusive question: Would 2016 finally be the year when Hispanics voted in numbers that might turn Arizona blue?

There was reason to be skeptical. It has been a quadrennial tradition, within the political class of the Cactus State, to envision and handicap a hypothetical voting universe in which Hispanics voted at rates approaching those of non-Hispanic whites. Everyone here understands that Hispanics, who doubled as a share of Arizona’s population between the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama (from 16 percent to 32 percent), and who historically voted Democratic here by a 2:1 margin, were destined to redraw the state’s political landscape sooner or later. The question was always one of pace. In 2016, given Trump’s insults of Hispanics and scapegoating of immigrants, there was reason to believe he had—to use Stephanie Cruz’s phrase—awakened a sleeping giant. Democrats here hoped it was really going to happen. Republicans here worried it was really going to happen.

And then it didn’t happen.

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Turnout among eligible Hispanic voters in 2016 once again finished south of 50 percent—lagging some 20 points behind white turnout—a bitter disappointment to Democratic organizers and activists. Over the past decade, they had launched unprecedented initiatives to register new voters and engage people and places with no history of political involvement. And yet, there was little to show for it. Even in the face of galvanizing events—including the controversial “Show Me Your Papers” law of 2010—the voting behaviors of Arizona’s Hispanic community remained static. They were disproportionately voting in favor of Democrats, yes, but their numbers were nowhere near reflective of their growing share of the population.

Which is why 2018 caught everyone off guard. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in Trump’s first midterm election, which saw participation spike across every demographic, “Hispanic voter turnout increased by 13 percentage points, a 50 percent increase in Hispanic voter turnout.” This constituted the biggest jump of any group, and the results were especially evident in states with the largest Hispanic populations. Arizona’s U.S. Senate race was decided by 2 points; the extraordinary uptick in Hispanic vote share almost surely put Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema over the top against her GOP opponent.

Naturally, this sets the stage for great expectations among Arizona Democrats in 2020. But those expectations might not be realistic. In my conversations with voters and party officials, it was clear that the dramatic increase in off-year turnout, heartening though it was to activists, might have papered over some of the fundamental obstacles that have long kept Hispanics away from the polls.

“Latinos are afraid to vote, man. Trust me. I was born here, I’ve been voting for 50 years, and I’m still afraid to vote,” said MIGUEL SALDIVA, a 70-year-old landscaper who stopped for groceries at the Food City marketplace.

Why? What makes an American citizen afraid to vote?

“It doesn’t matter if you have papers or don’t have papers,” Saldiva explained, referring to immigration status. “Because even if you have papers, maybe you live with someone in your house who doesn’t have papers, and you’re worried about registering with the government. You know what I mean?”

He continued, “I have a lot of friends—friends with papers—who don’t vote. They get mad, they get frustrated, but they don’t vote. They don’t want any trouble. Plus, they hear too much crap on the television that confuses them. They are good people, and they don’t want to be taken advantage of by the politicians.”

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Saldiva removed his ball cap and ran his hands through a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. “I don’t think they’re going to vote just because of this president—” here he broke into a brief fit of bilingual cursing. “God knows they should, you know? But I don’t think they will.”

Maricopa County is a behemoth. Roughly two-thirds of Arizona’s people live here. It’s the second-biggest county in the U.S. by land mass, the fourth-most populous county overall. As Maricopa goes, politically speaking, so goes Arizona.

That’s generally been good news for Republicans, who have carried the county in every presidential election since 1952. But things have gotten interesting of late. Trump won Maricopa by a hair less than 3 points in 2016, the closest margin in two decades. Then, in the 2018 midterms, Sinema won the county by more than 4 points, a result that stunned some Republicans here. They had a hunch Maricopa was tightening and might be fought to a draw, but few people in either party envisioned a Democrat winning a high-turnout statewide race in the county.

It was long anticipated that a Hispanic voting boom would move Maricopa County to the left. In reality, the dramatic political makeover here owes more immediately to the exodus of white suburbanites from Trump’s GOP. Whatever disappointment Democrats have felt at lagging Hispanic turnout in past election cycles is now morphing into an opportunity they did not foresee: Explosive turnout from Hispanics here is no longer about turning Arizona purple, as was the plan, but about turning it blue.

That’s what GREG MORALES was thinking when he pulled into McDowell Square on October 7.

It was the first day of early voting in Maricopa County. A total of seven precincts were open across the county’s 9,200 square miles, with voters able to cast a ballot at any location they chose. Talking with locals, it was clear that most of those seven locations were in affluent pockets of metropolitan Phoenix. And then there was McDowell Square.

Squeezed between a freeway and the south side of several heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, the shopping center was bustling with people buying groceries, people getting their nails done, people grabbing takeout food on their lunch break. Over the course of the day, fewer than 200 people stepped inside the tiny voting precinct—an annex of the Dollar Tree, barely visible from the parking lot, with no sign or banner above the entryway—to cast their ballot for president. Of those who did, nobody was more animated than Morales.

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“I’ve been waiting for today. I’ve been counting the days until I could vote. I could barely sleep last night!” squealed Morales, a 65-year-old accountant who pulled into the parking lot in a conspicuous, 90s-vintage Porsche. “Some bad shit is happening in this country, man, and now it’s time to do something about it. This is the time. This is the time.”

What kind of bad shit?

“These Republicans, they scare me, man. Trump scares the hell out of me,” Morales said. “I mean, Bill Clinton was kind of a pig, right? He was macking on Monica [Lewinsky] and everything. But at least he did a good job. At least he took the job seriously. And then George W. Bush, you know, he didn’t do such a good job, but at least he was a good person. Trump is the worst of all those worlds. He’s a bad guy and he does a bad job.”

Morales described himself as a former staunch Republican. He said Ronald Reagan was his political hero, explaining that he continued to vote GOP even as the party moved further right, until he finally abandoned ship in 2016 when the party nominated “a total fraud, a total scam artist” for president. I asked whether his friends and family were similarly alienated by Trump—and if so, whether they voted accordingly.

He shook his head. “There’s a lot of racism in Arizona, man. People have always been afraid of the government here. That’s why a lot of my Chicano friends never even bothered before,” Morales said. “But now, with Trump, it’s like they don’t give a shit anymore. I talk to all my Chicano friends, and they’re all registered, they’re all voting, they’re all voting against Trump. And the weird thing is, some of them even gave him credit for getting the economy going—which, I disagree with, but whatever—and it’s still not enough. They’re still voting his ass out.”

When Morales repeated his hymn—“This is the time”—I asked how he could be so certain. How could he feel confident that Hispanics, after decades of punching well below their electoral weight, were finally going to start throwing haymakers?

“It’s Trump,” he cried, slapping the back of his right hand into his left palm. “He gave us the jump-start we needed. And now that we got the jump-start, there’s no shutting us down. And you know why? This new generation of Latinos. These kids, man. They’re not playing games. They’re voting whether anyone likes it or not.”

Not everyone was in a position to vote that day.

When I met CYNTHIA JOHNSON, the 38-year-old retail clerk was waiting for her takeout lunch—shrimp fried rice—from the window-in-the-wall Chinese joint sandwiched between the Boost Mobile store and the insurance company. Johnson was on her break from Marshall’s, the clothing store, and was sizing up the scene nearby. Eyeing the members of her community walking into the tiny, nondescript storefront, she looked confused when I told her people were casting ballots for president inside.

“I don’t usually vote,” she shrugged. “I didn’t vote last time, and I don’t have a good reason why. But I’m going to vote this time. I already registered.”

Why this time?

“I do not like Donald Trump,” she deadpanned.

Why didn’t she vote against him last time, then?

“I never really cared who was president,” she said, shrugging again. “There’s just something about this guy—he’s a racist, but it’s more than that. It’s like he’s always creating this fear and this chaos for no good reason. Everything he says, you know it’s a lie as soon as it comes out of his mouth. I can’t put up with him.”

Does she know anyone who likes Trump?

“Not really. Most of my friends are Democrats. My daughter, my husband, they’re both Democrats, they’re both voting for Biden,” Johnson said. (Her family is from Mexico; the surname, she explained, owes to her “white boy” husband.) “The only person I really know personally who voted for Trump was my mom. She was a big time supporter of his. But now she’s talking like she might not vote at all.”

I asked why.

“She’s mad she didn’t get that second stimulus check,” Johnson laughed.

A few minutes later, I got to talking with another 38-year-old. His name was MIGUEL NUNEZ.

Nunez emigrated legally to the United States at 5 years old. He felt a fierce patriotism from childhood but was ashamed by his lack of citizenship. Once, when his high school government teacher held a mock election, he decided to “come clean” and tell her he was ineligible. Rather than rebuke him, Nunez said, the teacher encouraged him to prepare for the day when he would have the right to vote.

That day came when he was 24, an enlisted man in the United States Marine Corps. Nunez, newly minted as an American citizen, proudly cast his first vote for president for John McCain, his home state senator. It had nothing to do with party affiliation or political ideology—just like it had nothing to do with his heritage.

“I refuse to vote as a Hispanic, or as a Mexican immigrant, or as a member of any group or party. I vote as an American, as a Marine, as someone who served my country and earned the right to vote,” Nunez said. “In 2008, that was an easy call for me. John McCain was a patriot and a great leader.”

Things got a little fuzzy from there, however. Nunez said that he accidentally sat out the 2012 election because he “screwed up my absentee,” but said he had planned to reluctantly support Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. Four years later, he was even less enthused with his choices. After some deliberation, Nunez recalled, he decided to vote for Trump—not because he liked the Republican nominee, but because he recoiled at what he considered to be hyperbole deployed against him.

“Honestly, I was tired of hearing people freaking out about how everything would go to hell if Trump won. I had all these friends super-worried about Trump coming after them, picking on their communities, making life hard on them,” Nunez said. “I believed they were wrong. I wanted them to be wrong. But they weren’t.”

I asked Nunez why he’d soured on the president.

“It’s about accountability and integrity,” he replied. “When you lose trust, when your word is no good, it’s hard to be a leader. And that’s where the accountability comes in. When a leader gets something wrong, they have to admit responsibility and fix it. But he won’t. He can’t. It’s not who he is.”

Nunez sounded thoroughly lukewarm about Biden. Having spent 16 years in the conservative culture of the Marine Corps—he is now retired and going back to school—Nunez cannot bring himself to accept some of what he sees in the Democratic Party: identity politics, subverting of law enforcement, flirtation with socialism. Still, right now, in this election, “It was an easy choice. Biden is the better candidate for the job.”

I asked Nunez whether he notices any change, among his Hispanic friends and family members, in this election cycle.

“I don’t think it’s political, actually. It’s the ownership we have now in our communities. Growing up here, this is day and night from when I was a kid. I never saw a Hispanic lawyer’s face on a billboard. That would have been crazy. But they’re everywhere now,” Nunez said. “So, that’s cool for my son—he’s 19—for him to see that every day. But I don’t know what that ownership means in terms of politics. I mean, I hear a lot of complaining about Trump from the younger generation. But I’m not sure they’ll do anything about it.”

JOSE ESCARCEGA is not part of the younger generation.

At 68, with wisps of silver hair and the hunched back of a retired construction worker, Escarcega looked much older than his age. He stood outside the mechanic’s shop waiting for his brakes to get fixed. Right around the corner, past the Food City, a short line had formed in front of the early voting station. But Escarcega had no need to join them.

A citizen since 1988—and a longtime user of Maricopa County’s cutting-edge mail voting program—he had already requested a mail-in ballot. He was one of more than 2 million people in Maricopa County to do so, shattering old records for mail-in ballot applications. By law, delivery had begun earlier that very day. Now, all he could do was wait—and decide who to vote for.

“I’m a Democrat, I voted Clinton the last time, but then I was happy with Trump because of the economy. I liked the economy,” Escarcega said, annunciating slowly in his second language. (I apologized to him for having shed four years of high school Spanish classes.)

“But now I come back to the Democrats,” he added.


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