Carefree, Arizona: You’ll find them in the same spot every day except Sunday, from eight to 10 in the morning and four until six in the afternoon. Two retirees sitting by the highway clutching Biden-Harris signs.
They’d spend even longer if they could. But here in the Sonoran Desert, where 36-degree autumn days are common, it’s too hot to do much of anything without air conditioning when the sun is up. Only the towering saguaro cactuses that dominate the landscape in Arizona — some of them hundreds of years old — can stand it.
Driving past Tom and Linda Rawles, it’s easy to assume they are hardcore Democrats. Pull over to chat and you discover they are lifelong Republicans. Tom, 70, once worked as chief-of-staff for a Republican congressman. Linda, 61, joined the party when she was 13 and later ran for Congress as a Republican. More so than conservative, they identify as libertarian — a common trait in this part of the country, where individual freedom is regarded as sacrosanct.
“I think that the government should stay out of your bedroom and out of your wallet,” Linda explains. Like many Arizonans, they have a gun handy at home in case they need it. As we talk, leather-clad bikers are blazing down the highway at 120 km/h. Most aren’t wearing helmets; under Arizona law you’re not required to.
They live in Carefree, a town of 3000 people on the outskirts of Phoenix, the state’s biggest city. Afraid of catching the coronavirus, they have barely left their home over the past seven months. Most days this is as far as they venture out: to the top of their driveway and back for a twice-daily dose of political activism.
In 2016 the Rawlses disliked Donald Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-free trade rhetoric. Unable to stomach Hillary Clinton either, they voted for the Libertarian Party candidate. This time around they are staunch Joe Biden supporters. To them this is no normal election; they believe a second Trump term represents an existential threat to American democracy.
“We think everything is at stake for our country,” Linda says. “The Republican Party has been taken over by a populist cult. We don’t agree with Biden on everything but he’s a decent man. He’s not a psychopath.”
They were horrified by Trump’s claim, following deadly white supremacist riots in Charlottesville, that there were “fine people on both sides” of the protests. They’re alarmed at his insistence the election is “rigged” and that he may not accept the peaceful transfer of power if he loses. And they’re aghast at his rejection of climate science and his efforts to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19.
As they list their reasons for opposing Trump, a white car pulls off the highway. A woman steps out and introduces herself: she’s also named Linda but is a Trump supporter. She wants to know why this silver-haired couple by the road is supporting Biden.
Sensing a potential convert, Linda Rawles says: “I promise you we’ll be fighting with you to make sure Biden doesn’t go too far to the left. First we’ve got to get rid of this maniac.”
After starting pleasantly enough, the conversation quickly runs into the ground. Linda the Trump supporter is terrified that socialists will be running the country if Biden wins. Linda Rawles replies that Trump is a fascist who wants to turn America into a right-wing dictatorship.
Two women of the same age with the same name in the same town. But they might as well be speaking different languages. Linda, the Trump supporter, drives away with no minds changed. If anything, the encounter only confirms their suspicion that those on the opposing side are not just mistaken but unhinged.
Two weeks out from election day, life in Carefree feels anything but untroubled.
“It pains me to the bottom of my heart what has happened to our country,” Linda Rawles says. “It makes me sadder than I can express.”
When Trump emerged as a political candidate, Robin Shaw was willing to give the billionaire businessman a chance. A lifelong Republican, Shaw represented the party in the Arizona state legislature in the 1990s. She then saw the dysfunctional politics of Washington up close as a financial services lobbyist. Although she had doubts, she voted for Trump in 2016.
“There was so much gridlock, nothing was getting done,” she says. “And here came this outsider. I thought maybe he will be independent enough to drain the swamp like he said he would. I thought: it’s four years, how much damage can he do?”
Standing in the driveway of her home in Scottsdale, she shakes her head in disbelief. The Trump experiment, she says, has turned out to be an epic failure: “Our country has hit rock bottom.”
She’s particularly critical of Trump’s response to the coronavirus. So that she can still look after her 95 and 99-year-old parents, Shaw has had to sequester at home in Scottsdale, near Phoenix, since the pandemic began. Three close friends have died from the virus.
This time around, Shaw is campaigning for Biden alongside friend and fellow former Republican state legislator Roberta Voss. Both are involved with the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump conservatives, and display Arizona Republicans for Biden signs on their front lawns.
“The Republican Party no longer exists,” says Voss. “Trumpism has replaced conservatism.”
Shaw sums up the past four years as “distressing”. She has cut off contact with conservative friends and family members in order to avoid nasty arguments about politics.
“I hope it’s not permanent but right now I can’t talk to them,” she says. “There’s so much strife, there’s so much divisiveness. It’s exhausting. Everyone I talk to is fed up.”
For the past 70 years, the arid plains of Arizona have been among the most reliable Republican territory in the country. Since 1952 only one Democratic presidential candidate has won the Grand Canyon State: Bill Clinton in 1996. Eight years ago, Mitt Romney crushed Barack Obama by 12 percentage points.
Those days are now gone. Trump carried the state by a slim 3.5 percentage points in 2016 and in 2018 Arizonans sent their first Democrat to the US Senate in 30 years. This year, it is one of the most fiercely-contested states on the electoral map. Biden leads Trump by 3 points in the RealClearPolitics average, fuelling Democratic hopes of a historic victory here.
“I know we’re going to win Arizona,” Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, declared at an event last week.
A big reason is shifting demographics. Despite its frontier mythology, the state is highly urbanised: half of the voters live in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and surrounding towns like Carefree. There are growing numbers of Hispanic and college-educated voters, plus an influx of migrants from more left-leaning states. Even so, Democrats are still outnumbered by both Republicans and registered independents.
Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, says the ideological disposition of the state’s voters is crucial. “Arizonans are pretty moderate and they take pride in that,” she says. “They see themselves as really independent.”
This mentality was epitomised by John McCain, the late Republican senator who styled himself as a maverick. McCain took pride in working with Democrats on legislation and bucking the orthodoxy of his party. McCain’s widow Cindy has endorsed Biden and is appearing in his Arizona campaign ads.
“The fact that Biden is, by most accounts, a pretty centrist candidate really helps him in a state like Arizona,” Klar says. “This is not a state that will elect a very liberal Democrat.”
Immigration lawyer Yasser Sanchez agrees. Born in Mexico, the father of five is an active member of his local Mormon church and his bookshelves are lined with tomes by Fox News personalities and conservative politicians. After campaigning for Republican candidates since his university days, Sanchez quit the party last year in frustration with its acquiescence to Trump.
“Everything about him is a con,” Sanchez says as he serves up lunch of prawn ceviche at his two-storey home in Gilbert, a town near Phoenix. “He doesn’t care about science, doesn’t care about facts, doesn’t care about human beings.”
He wrote the name of an independent candidate on the ballot in 2016, but this year he is campaigning for Biden.
“It would have been very hard for me to campaign for Bernie Sanders – I’m a moderate,” he says.
“With Joe Biden it’s very easy. He’s the only sane choice for president.”
Sanchez says a narrow victory for either candidate in Arizona wouldn’t surprise him. Trump remains overwhelmingly popular in rural areas, and has held five rallies in the state this year to drive up turnout from his conservative base.
“They are scared out of their minds of losing Arizona,” Sanchez says of his friends in the Republican Party. “If they lose Arizona, they lose the election.”
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.