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Independent voters now make up the largest voting bloc in Arizona

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're about a year away from the 2024 presidential election, and one of the most critical states will be Arizona, which is why NPR's Asma Khalid recently went there to hear what's on voters' minds. Hey, Asma. Good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what were you trying to figure out in Arizona?

KHALID: Well, I was fascinated that the largest political party in Arizona is no longer a party, right? It's not Republicans. It's not Democrats. If you look at exit polls from the 2022 midterms, independent voters made up about 40% of the electorate. I mean, that's a jaw-dropping number. And Thom Reilly, who studies independent voters - he's a professor at Arizona State University. He told me that these voters are all over the political spectrum, from the most conservative to the most far-left progressives.

THOM REILLY: The issue with independent voters is they're unpredictable. They're not necessarily aligned on policy issues, but they're aligned in their displeasure or the reasons they don't want to be part of the two-party system.

KHALID: Reilly told me he's noticed a lot of veterans are identifying as independent.

BUD MEADOR: My name is Bud Meador. I'm 77, I think - retired military after 42 years of service.

KHALID: I met Meador in Sun City West, which bills itself as the nation's premier active adult golf retirement community. It's about 45 minutes from central Phoenix. Meador recently left the Republican Party.

B MEADOR: And it was a long decision. We had wrestled over that for a long time because we just didn't like the way the contentious atmosphere - becoming more personal, more low-rent, low-class commentary coming out of some of the Republican candidates, Donald Trump in particular.

KHALID: Meador is intrigued by people like North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, though he didn't even make the GOP debate stage last week. He's also interested in West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who's quitting the Senate to travel the country and explore the possibility of a centrist movement. Meador's wife, Jane, chimes into the conversation.

JANE MEADOR: I still lean toward Republican outlook, but I'm not finding that we have the leadership in that area, and so I'm willing to open my mind and look wider than just the Republican Party. But the Democrats are not coming up with anything either, so right now, I don't know what I'm going to do when it's time to vote. I'm not even sure I'll vote.

KHALID: Jane Meador has voted religiously all her life, but she does not like Trump's behavior, and she thinks Biden has been a disaster on border security and inflation.

J MEADOR: The economy is terrible, especially in this community. You have senior citizens on fixed incomes that are being squeezed.

KHALID: Plus, like a lot of voters, the Meadors say Biden is just too old. Experts say one thing that might sway how independents vote is who else and what else is on the ballot next fall. And one key issue could be abortion. Here at the Arizona State Fair, volunteers are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to create a constitutional right to abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Would you like to sign a petition to protect a woman's right to choose in the state of Arizona?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Do you live in Maricopa County?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I do.

KHALID: Ever since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, whenever the question of reproductive rights has been put directly to voters, they have supported abortion rights, even in some more conservative states like Ohio just last week. Here in Arizona, people, mostly women, signed their names and had a similar message.

YOLANDA ESPINOZA: I think every woman has a right to do what they have to do.

SARAH KAUFMAN: It's a woman's choice.

IZZY DUBIN: I feel like everyone should have the right to choose.

KHALID: Yolanda Espinoza, Sarah Kaufman and Izzy Dubin all want to see expanded abortion rights in their state, but they all also say they do not align with the Democratic Party. Independents skew young like Izzy Dubin. She's 29. She's no fan of Donald Trump. She says she's neutral on Biden. But as a mom of a young daughter, protecting a woman's right to choose is fundamental.

DUBIN: I try to educate myself on issues that are important, and I think this is an important one.

FADEL: Asma is back with us now in the studio. Hi, Asma. So if abortion makes it on the Arizona ballot, what does that mean for Biden?

KHALID: Well, this ballot initiative could boost turnout. I mean, that's what we've seen in some other states. And the thinking there is that that could potentially help Joe Biden. Voters like Dubin will show up to vote for abortion rights. And while they're there, you know, some Democrats think maybe that could help because they might cast a ballot for Biden. But Chuck Coughlin told me there's also something else at play in Arizona. He's a political operative who worked with former GOP Senator John McCain.

CHUCK COUGHLIN: I've always claimed that Trump is the best Democratic turnout machine that's ever existed. He is very effective at turning out the Democratic and unaffiliated base to make sure he doesn't get elected.

KHALID: Coughlin himself has been an independent voter since 2017, and he thinks that next year he may vote for Biden. You know, Biden is not particularly popular in the polls, but Coughlin points out that despite what a poll here or there might say, the reality is Trumpy candidates have not managed to win independent voters in Arizona since 2016. And you just can't win the state without them.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid bringing us voter voices. Thank you so much for your reporting.

KHALID: Good to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.