Is There A Better Way to Talk About Voters? - Open Primaries Arizona
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Is There A Better Way to Talk About Voters?

Posted by Patrick McWhortor on September 22, 2015 at 11:26 AM

On September 21, I read a headline and was reminded again of how people’s thinking is boxed in by the control of elections by Kyrsten_Sinema_113th_Congress.jpgpolitical parties. When the pundits try to analyze data and political trends, they so often fall back on the same two-party construct. Why is it that people can only look at politics through the lens of two parties?

Arizona Capitol Times published analysis of voter registration and voting trends in Arizona Congressional District 9. The district was created by the Independent Redistricting Commission after the 2010 census, and voters have twice elected Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat.

The article includes some very revealing data and thoughtful analysis, but you had to read well into the article to get there. Because the article’s headline set up the story as one party versus the other, you might have missed the more nuanced analysis.

The article’s headline read “Despite Republican Registration Edge, CD9 Tilts Toward Democrats.” Notice right off the top that the article uses a typical Republic/Democrat dichotomy, ignoring the fact that independents live in CD9.

The article then opens with the statement: “Arizona’s 9th Congressional District has become the competitive district that never was.” The explanation of this statement is that the Independent Redistricting Commission billed CD9 as one of three competitive congressional districts (out of nine total districts in the state) when it created the new CD9 in 2011. By “competitive,” of course, the connotation is that a Republican and a Democrat each has a roughly equal chance of winning a race in the district.

Since the voters of CD9 elected Sinema twice in 2012 and 2014, the article posits that the district must not be competitive. Apparently, the only way the district could be considered competitive is if a Republican had won the seat in 2014.

Next, the analysis goes a bit deeper and looks at the results of Arizona’s statewide races among the voters of CD9. And it turns out that every one of the top four Democratic contenders in 2014 won CD9, even though they all lost their races statewide. So this is offered as evidence of the clearly “non-competitive” nature of CD9. At this point, you might be thinking the article has made its point. Truly, CD9 is just another gerrymandered district, right? It is clearly a Democratic district, right?

Then, halfway through the article, a more revealing truth comes out. The authors point out that Republican voters outnumber Democratic voters by 10,000 in CD9. How could they possibly keep electing a Democrat?

The answer is in the next paragraph:

“What has changed more dramatically is the number of independents in CD9. Independents have become the largest bloc of voters in Arizona, and CD9 has mirrored that trend. In 2012, Republicans were the largest bloc in the district by a small margin. Now, there are about 141,000 independents in the district, outnumbering Republicans by about 24,000 and Democrats by nearly 34,000.”

So the real answer to the question of “what is happening” in CD9 lies in the analysis of the role of independents. And the fact is that independents are taking a critical look at the candidates and making a choice of who best represents them. That includes not only Rep. Sinema, but those same voters’ choices for statewide offices.

Even the Republican activists quoted in the article helped to disavow the notion that CD9 is not competitive. For example, Nathan Sproul, a Republican political consultant said “A Republican can win that district, but it takes a very good candidate in a very good Republican year to win it.” Sure, he still uses the two-party dichotomy, ignoring independents, but at least he acknowledges something the headline didn’t.

And a Democratic campaign consultant, D.J. Quinlan, summed it nicely when he said, “Somebody could take a look at that and say, because of that, the district is leaning more Democratic now. But I would contest that it has more to do with the type of candidate, that when you have pragmatic folks who are appealing to independent minded voters, they’re going to do very well in the district. It’s not so much that it’s just become this Democratic bastion. It’s just that the swing voters are kind of a different mix.”

Yes, Mr. Quinlan, the swing voters are a different mix. They are voters who want their elected officials to pay attention to their issues, not just the dictates of the party. They are voters who want their elected officials to earn their vote, not just rely on a gerrymandered district to make their life easy after the primary.

And that appears to be exactly what Rep. Sinema is doing. Last summer, Sinema announced that she was going to vote against the President’s trade deal, which Democratic-leaning labor interests wanted her to support. And then Sinema announced two weeks ago that she opposes the President’s Iran nuclear deal, something that would not make every Democrat happy. Bucking a Democratic President, while supporting a labor position, but backing the President again, even though many Democrats favor his position…this doesn’t look like the behavior of a Democrat in an “uncompetitive” Democratic district.

Rather, this looks like the behavior of a Congresswoman who understands that the majority of voters in her district, led by independents, want her to balance the complex issues and perspectives surrounding every decision and do her best to represent ALL the voters of CD9.

That is a far more nuanced view of the voters and the elected representative of Arizona Congressional District 9.

The Arizona Capitol Times article was beginning to get to that point toward the end. But its headline writers could not help themselves, presenting the false choice of looking at the district’s voters only as Democrats or Republicans.

If I had written the headline of this article, I would have composed something like this: “Independent-Minded Voters Hold the Keys to CD9.”

And then I would have opened the article with a sentence like: “Since the Independent Redistricting Commission created Arizona’s 9th Congressional District in 2011, the voters have twice elected an independent-minded Democrat.”

And then maybe added: “Perhaps the dynamics of this congressional district could be explained by the fact that independents now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats. This district is a telltale sign of what is happening among the electorate in an era when parties are losing favor with the American people.”