Am I Blue?

Arizona’s flirtation with becoming a blue state.

Arizona: land of cactus, sunshine, and liberals.

At least that’s what the election results here would have you believe. An unmarried, Democratic, woman governor picked up 63 percent of the vote for re-election. More than 65 percent of the voters approved a minimum-wage hike. About 62 percent of them approved a ban on small cages for pigs and calves.

Oh, and with 52 percent of the voters saying thumbs down, Arizona has just become the first in the nation to defeat a gay marriage ban.

Has Arizona morphed into a blue state?

Remember, this is a state that voted down Martin Luther King Day. A state where not one of the four propositions on this year’s ballot targeting illegal immigrants passed with less than 70 percent of the vote. Arizona remains the state in which 65 percent of the voters approved a measure limiting local governments’ powers of eminent domain. And almost 60 percent of us thought meth users should go to jail on a first offense.

What to make of it? Was this a tremendous victory for gay rights? Or was it something else? Could it have been the proposition was just poorly, broadly worded?

Proposition 107 states:

To preserve and protect marriage in this state, only a union between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage by this state or its political subdivisions and no legal status for unmarried persons shall be created or recognized by this state or its political subdivisions that is similar to that of marriage.  

And it’s that part—about “no legal status for unmarried persons shall be created” —that doomed Proposition 107 here. The three largest population centers in the state also happen to be home to its universities, which offer domestic-partner benefits. So do some of the cities in the state, as well as some of the more progressive employers. And—believe it or not—domestic partnerships are a big deal in the retirement communities that surround the cities. Passing a law that could be interpreted to deprive those groups of such rights virtually guaranteed that the measure would be strongly opposed.

It’s something that opponents of the proposition figured out early on. They challenged the ballot language earlier this year on the basis that it addressed two issues, rather than just one (gay marriage and domestic partnerships). An Arizona court upheld the language. But it gave opponents an in. Arguing that gays deserve equal protections and rights hadn’t worked in any other state gay-marriage-ban contests. So, the amendment’s Arizona opponents sponsored an ad campaign that forced the focus of the debate from the law’s intent to its consequences.

While proponents of the ban were putting up signs with wedding rings on them, opponents were thus posting signs that said, quite simply, “Why take away health care?” There were commercials with sweet elderly couples. And no matter how many canvassers the New York Times wrote about entering on-the-bubble neighborhoods and talking about civil rights, the thought of taking away health care in a state filled with senior citizens and service-economy workers was the one that really resonated.

A look at the unofficial polling numbers shows this really wasn’t the enormous victory for gay rights that the national press is making it out to be. First off, there’s already a law on the books that makes gay marriage illegal. Second, if you look at the numbers, only four of the state’s 15 counties actually voted to defeat Proposition 107.

Moreover, Proposition 107 went down by less than 15,000 votes in Maricopa County, the most populous county in the state (albeit one that often goes Republican). Maricopa County includes Phoenix, whose mayor came out strongly against the ban. The city’s historic central-corridor neighborhoods have also become a magnet for established gay couples. It also includes the city of Tempe, which is liberal enough to have elected a gay mayor in the late 1990s. It’s also the home of Arizona State University, the state’s largest university and a huge supplier of domestic-partner benefits. Maricopa County also includes Sun City, Sun City West, and Sun City Grand, a sprawling land of age-restricted communities that traditionally vote red but were heavily targeted by the ban’s opponents.

The proposition also went down by just a little over 6,000 votes in Coconino County, a county that includes the schizophrenic town of Flagstaff, which splits between old-time timber and ranching interests and the state’s crunchy Northern Arizona University.

The ban went down by more than 30,000 votes in Pima County, the state’s second-most-populous county, home of the University of Arizona and the state’s most liberal county. It was Pima County, as it always is, that pushes borderline propositions one way or the other.

And 107 also went down by less than 300 votes in Apache County, which is a deeply rural county in the eastern part of the state. No one has a good idea about why the proposition lost there, other than that the White Mountain Apache Reservation may have a lot of domestic partnerships on it.

All of this is hardly scientific, but the people who would vote against a gay marriage ban are generally the same ones who are going to vote against measures that make English the state’s official language or limit the educational benefits for illegal immigrants. Using this year’s election data, that’s about a third of the state’s voters.

So, where did the other 20 percent come from? That part really is instructive: Smart marketing and demographic targeting swung entrenched voters on this one issue. And the fact is that if the ban’s proponents had written it more narrowly and not let even broader language be used against them, it would have passed with maybe 60 percent of the vote, and we’d be talking about how Arizona was just another two-by-four to the knee to the gay marriage movement.

The ban’s supporters may still get the last laugh, though. On Wednesday afternoon, there were still 258,000 ballots around the state that needed to be counted. About 150,000 of those ballots were from Maricopa County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats. And many of those ballots are apparently from the 5th Congressional District, which elected Rep. J.D. Hayworth six times despite the liberal influence of Tempe. It’s likely that final vote results won’t be ready until at least next Wednesday.

All of the shouting on both sides of this issue may therefore be a bit premature.

And even if the proposition does ultimately fail, you can bet a version of it will appear next election, when the anti-gay marriage folks decide they don’t want to take on the unmarried couples living in Arizona again.

The next proposition will be shorter and leave no room for interpretation. And it will pass easily. When that happens, all around the country everyone will nod and say, “Oh, now Arizona’s back to normal.”