Cindy McCain is about to test how much weight her surname still carries in Arizona. Some Republicans think the answer might be: just enough to matter for Joe Biden.
Endorsements rarely provide more than a nominal boost to the candidates they’re bestowed upon. But the McCains are a special lot in Arizona. Though it’s well known the late Sen. John McCain wasn’t a fan of President Donald Trump, his wife’s endorsement last week of Biden — who enjoyed a decadeslong friendship with the Republican that outlasted the 2008 presidential race — made waves in the state.
The Biden campaign was already feeling good about flipping Arizona, where polling averages show him with a lead of more than 3 points. Cindy McCain’s backing could be particularly valuable in massive Maricopa County, which surrounds Phoenix, and especially its enormous swath of independents and moderate Republicans.
In other words: among McCain Republicans.
The Republican Party of Arizona is no longer the one John McCain presided over. Its apparatus is solidly behind Trump, as evidenced by the rise of far-right Republican Kelli Ward from a fringe member of the party to head of the state GOP. But no one’s arguing Cindy McCain could sway Trump diehards — it’s all about independents, of which there are many.
In most battlegrounds, Biden has a major advantage over Trump among women. But in Arizona, the two are in a tight race for that key demographic. The president and his party have steadily lost ground since 2018 as white, college-educated women have abandoned him.
McCain could help push those who are still undecided into Biden’s corner.
Those women are “definitely an audience that Cindy McCain appeals to,” said Paul Bentz, a Republican pollster in the state.
“Trump’s team should be most troubled by that female gap and how challenged they are particularly among some of those groups,” Bentz said. “Among the 300,000 or so likely swing voters that we’re going to see in this election, it makes a big difference to have the representative of our longtime and very popular United States senator side with Biden.”
The ‘permission structure’ play: Zeroing in on Mesa — a city of roughly a half-million people in Maricopa County — helps clarify Cindy McCain’s potential impact.
Legislative district 25 in Mesa is made up of about 35,000 Democrats, 62,000 Republicans and 48,000 independents, according to Iain Hamp, vice chair of the district’s Democratic Party.
Just based on those numbers, Mesa would appear to be out of reach for Democrats. But not necessarily.
Democrats nearly doubled their turnout from the primary in 2016 to the this year’s primary and they are aggressively courting independents, Hamp said. If Democrats win enough independents and draw a small number Republicans who are disillusioned with Trump and the GOP, Mesa could be the suburb that puts Maricopa County over the top.
“Democrats are not going to win in this district without independents and without some Republicans as well,” Hamp said. “And [Cindy McCain] will swing the independents.”
“When you’re trying to get people who ordinarily vote Republican to vote Democrat, or vice versa, a high-profile endorsement like that of Cindy McCain, it creates a permission structure,” added Rodd McLeod, an Arizona Democratic strategist.
Rae Chornenky, chair of the Maricopa County Republican Party, argued McCain won’t “detract from President Trump’s support.” As for her swaying independents, Chornenky argued that Arizona is used to voters who vacillate between supporting Republicans and Democrats, and Cindy McCain’s endorsement didn’t come as a surprise to those in the state.
But in a tight race where Biden leads by an average of 3 points in polling, any McCain effect could be important. Crossover voting is ingrained in the state’s political identity. A sizable number of 2016 Trump voters supported Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, making her the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since the 1980s.
The upshot: Biden’s campaign is betting Cindy McCain’s endorsement sends a message to on-the-fence voters pining for an iota of bipartisanship.
“There’s a reason why they released her endorsement two weeks prior to early ballots hitting: because they believe it will make a difference,” said former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, a Republican who is not backing Biden.
Added Adams: “When you can persuade a percentage point or two in a specific demographic to come your way, the Cindy McCain endorsement can have real impact in a state like Arizona, where the John McCain and McCain family’s name ID is 100 percent.”