The weather was auspicious: at barely 75 degrees, the temperature was unusually low for Arizona in late May. The day should have been a perfect one for buttonholing strangers. But the Democratic political canvassers trying to sign up first-time voters at a bus stop outside Desert Sky, a shopping mall in Phoenix’s Maryvale district, were having little luck.
Maryvale, which was built in the 1950s, during the beginning of the aerospace boom, looks like a run-down southwestern Levittown. As in many original inner-ring suburban neighborhoods throughout the West, the white families who once filled its phalanxes of starter homes have left for bigger houses in newer suburbs. Latino families have taken their place, and department stores with names like La Curacoa and Mercado de Los Cielos have moved into Desert Sky alongside Sears and Dillard’s. When Democratic strategists say the road to the White House “runs through the barrio,” they are talking about places like Maryvale.
Earlier this year, the Obama campaign put two full-time staffers on the ground in Arizona in an effort to rouse what many call the state’s “sleeping giant”: Latino voters. In hopes of further boosting Latino turnout, the president personally recruited a Spanish-speaking moderate named Richard Carmona to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jon Kyl. Carmona already has a résumé worthy of The Avengers: Vietnam vet with two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, homicide detective, SWAT-team leader, trauma surgeon, onetime George W. Bush–administration surgeon general turned principled dissenter. If he wins his race, he’ll add to his résumé Arizona’s first Latino senator. But if he doesn’t, his campaign may be remembered as a symbol of how Democrats misjudged what should be a natural constituency.