As the votes come in Tuesday night, the answer to some of the election's most pressing questions may be found in the new battleground state of Arizona. It has many of the key voting groups that will be pivotal in a host of close states, and an early-voting system that has been tested in the past and has been tabulating votes for two weeks, meaning we'll know who the bulk of those voters picked by the end of the night. Joe Biden has enjoyed a small, but consistent lead in Arizona since the summer thanks to suburban women, seniors and Latinos. Which suggests the one-time home of American conservatism could be changing in the same way the country is, becoming more diverse and more educated. But Democrats thought that in 2016 too.
That long line of green envelopes you see marching together contains just some of the record number of completed mail-in ballots from Arizona voters. First, they are processed through state-of-the art machines, then they're sent to ballot tabulation centers for counting.
Arizonans of both parties have been voting safely and easily by mail since 1992. This election, for the first time, state officials started tabulating ballots 14 days before the election. As of tonight, millions of early votes have been processed.
The results sit in secure servers, those red and blue machines, that are sealed, transparent and not connected to the internet. And no one knows what those results are.
Katie Hobbs: We're allowed to post results an hour after polls close, so 8 p.m. on election night here in Arizona.
Katie Hobbs is Arizona's secretary of state and chief election officer.
John Dickerson: On election night, how much will it be an advantage that you will have been able to start counting for 14 days?
Katie Hobbs: That's a huge advantage, particularly over states that are seeing a huge increase in the volume of voting by mail and statutorily aren't able to start processing ballots until that day. We're certainly going to be ahead of them.
That anyone is holding their breath about the outcome of the race in Arizona is notable. It's a longtime Republican state, but it is changing. Seven million people now live in Arizona, spurred by America's fastest-growing county, Maricopa County. The home of Phoenix and Tempe, it's also known for its blooming suburbs. It accounts for 60% of Arizona's vote and no Democrat has carried Maricopa County since 1948.
John Dickerson: Traditionally, would we be in a ruby red part of Arizona?
Yasser Sanchez: Maricopa County is the largest county that Trump won the last election. And so this is the center of Trumpville in Arizona.
If Arizona turns blue it will be in part because of voters like Yasser Sanchez and his wife, Emily, conservatives who live in the Maricopa County suburb of Gilbert. In 2016, they never saw a Hillary Clinton sign in their neighborhood. Now the streets by their house are dotted with Trump and Biden signs poking from the alternating beach towel-sized front lawns. They've added a new entrant in the sign wars: Arizona Republicans for Biden. Yasser and Emily are voting for a Democrat for the first time.
John Dickerson: So how's that goin' over?
Emily Sanchez: I've noticed people coming out of the woodwork, but interestingly enough, silently. They'll come and say, "Hey, I see that you're supporting Biden. I am too. But I can't really tell anyone," or, "I can't tell my family."
John Dickerson: So people talk about shy Trump voters. Are there shy Biden voters?
Emily Sanchez: Absolutely.
COVID-19 has hurt Donald Trump in the state. The virus hammered Arizona in June and July, making the state the hot spot in the nation at one point. Yasser, Emily and four of their five kids all got the virus at the same time.
Emily Sanchez: For me, the campaign is personal. It is no longer political.
John Dickerson: Why?
Emily Sanchez: Because we've personally gone through COVID-19. We have also seen worse where friends have died.
Yasser Sanchez: And for the president to dismiss it as no big deal or the flu or just play politics with it, it's more than offensive. It, it enrages me. It makes me so angry.
So angry, Yasser helped organize an unusual coalition of latinos, liberals and conservatives who convened on a recent Saturday morning to launch a unique parade.
A caravan supporting Joe Biden in former Republican strongholds.
While that mile-long procession was blaring its way through Maricopa County.
A three-mile long caravan of Trump supporters served as a reminder that as much as Donald Trump may rankle some in his party, he is also revered.
This past Wednesday, the president touched down in a suburb of Phoenix for another packed rally.
It was Donald Trump's seventh visit to Arizona this year.
At a smaller gathering for conservatives on the edge of Maricopa County, the rallying cry was for low taxes, law and order and personal freedom.
Dr. Kelli Ward: We need to make faces great again, breathing great again, you know, person-to-person communication great again.
We met Dr. Kelli Ward, the chairwoman of Arizona's Republican party who twice launched unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate from the party's right flank.
John Dickerson: Why is Arizona, which is the state of Barry Goldwater, John McCain, I mean, this is a Republican state. Why is it even in question?
Dr. Kelli Ward: Well, obviously the country is changing. It seems like there is a sea change politically across the board. A lot of people from California have come to Arizona.
John Dickerson: There is a tension in the party in Arizona between kind of one wing and the other, that seems like President Trump is right in the middle of that tension.
Dr. Kelli Ward: I think it's a manufactured tension. This isn't about a person. This is about policies. When you put those before the people without Donald Trump attached to them, they love them.
John Dickerson: So is that the challenge? To get people to see on the other side of the, the man who's at the top?
Dr. Kelli Ward: I think the people have to be smarter than, than many times the media who is putting things out as though it's all about Orange Man Bad, when it's really about Republican policies good.
John Dickerson: But Donald Trump is not shy, he's not a-- he's not a retiring type…
Dr. Kelli Ward: Well, I'm thankful… I'm thankful that he isn't shy. Because I can tell you what didn't get us the White House, it was whenever we had those shy retiring Republicans, who just wanted to get along, to go along, who let Democrat policies be shoved down the throats of the American people, who have led us to the brink of socialism. Donald Trump took control of the situation.
John Dickerson: Let me ask you… I've talked to some suburban Republican women.
Dr. Kelli Ward: Yes.
John Dickerson: And some of the ones I've talked to love Donald Trump, some have left the party because of it and this is a challenge. How's he doing with suburban women now?
Dr. Kelli Ward: I think he's doing great with suburban women. Women, women love Donald Trump. There are some who have been sadly brainwashed by things that aren't really even true across the board about the president. We hear…
John Dickerson: Now, Dr. Ward, you're not saying that women can't think for themselves are you?
Dr. Kelli Ward: No, I'm saying the media lies. And, and…
John Dickerson: But they're smart enough to get around that…
Dr. Kelli Ward: Are they? I mean, you know, if you hear it and hear it and hear it and only that, you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.
One famous exile from the new Arizona Republican Party is Cindy McCain, the widow of John McCain, a man who once defined that party.
John Dickerson: What are they missing in the current Republican leadership now that-- that is not…
Cindy McCain: Well, the-- the willingness to work together. Somehow you have to either be on this side or this side, and there's no in-between. Gosh, if you're a Democrat, we're not going to talk to you. They no longer put country before party. It's the opposite right now.
The Trump-McCain feud dates back to the last campaign when Trump won Arizona by three and a half points. But Cindy McCain said she was pushed to speak out after the Atlantic magazine reported derogatory comments President Trump allegedly made about military service members. Her endorsement of Joe Biden in September was local front page news.
Cindy McCain: For me, the final straw was the, you know, 'They're losers and suckers.'
John Dickerson: The Atlantic article and the…
Cindy McCain: The, the Atlantic article. You know, I'm the mother of two veterans and a wife of a veteran, and my father was a veteran. They were not losers and suckers by any chance. It angered me a great deal. It angered me. And so I thought, you know, I can either sit here and be angry or I can do something.
John Dickerson: And when you made that decision did you get blowback?
Cindy McCain: Yeah (laughs).
John Dickerson: What form did that take?
Cindy McCain: All kinds of forms (laughter). But you know the blowback does not matter to me. It's, it's about doing what's right of the country. And I, like many people couldn't sit back anymore.
Arizona's political profile mimicked the cactus that dots its landscape – prickly, resistant to change, capable of living for years without outside help. This land of canyons has been the home to two GOP nominees, Senator Barry Goldwater and Senator John McCain. Arizona retained its Republican character until recently.
Now, Arizona may be on the verge of electing Democrat Mark Kelly, which would give the state two Democratic senators for the first time in 70 years. Republican Jeff Flake represented Arizona in the Senate until early last year.
John Dickerson: Did you ever imagine that a red state like Arizona would suddenly be thick with Democratic politicians getting elected?
Jeff Flake: Not at this stage. I mean, you look in the future and you think, "Unless a Republican Party, you know, transforms a bit and appeals to a broader electorate then, you know, we're gonna be irrelevant." That's, that's always been you know, far in the future. But did I envision it this fast? No. Not at all.
John Dickerson: So President Trump is accelerating the changes in…
Jeff Flake: Definitely…
John Dickerson: …Arizona right…
Jeff Flake: If you run a candidate, a Republican candidate statewide for state mine inspector, for example. We do have one (laughs). Nobody pays attention to that race. And the Republican will win handily. So it's still a center right state. But not President Trump's style of politics. That just doesn't play well for a lot of independents and a lot of moderate Republicans.
It didn't play well for Flake.
Jeff Flake during Senate speech: We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals…
He left the Senate after one term because President Trump and his base had turned against Flake's independent streak, once the hallmark of Arizona Republicans. Flake has endorsed Joe Biden in this election.
John Dickerson: For Arizona, is this election a referendum on President Trump?
Jeff Flake: Most definitely. Yeah. I mean, you have an incumbent coming in, the economy was good and strong, anybody with those kinds of odds, an incumbent ought to be winning. But more than anything, it's the president's handling of the coronavirus. It's just the whole schtick I think people are tiring of.
Before Donald Trump even ran for president, his spiritual predecessor, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, tracked down and jailed undocumented immigrants. Latinos, who make up a third of Arizona's population, like 19-year-old Alexis Delgado Garcia, remember those days. Born in this country, Alexis is the son of undocumented parents.
Alexis Delgado Garcia: Here in Arizona, it was really, really difficult to even go to the grocery [store]. Going to…
John Dickerson: Why was it difficult to go to the grocery [store]?
Alexis Delgado Garcia: The fear of my parents getting deported, the fear of my parents not seeing me again or seeing my family again was very, very huge.
John Dickerson: So are you involved in canvassing to spare other people of color what you went through?
Alexis Delgado Garcia: Yeah.
Alexis and twin sisters, Evelynne and Yoshi Rodas Castillo, are part of a wave of young American-born Hispanics who have come of voting age…they canvassed door to door on a 97-degree day, trying to spur people to vote for joe biden.
John Dickerson: Evelynne, why did you get involved in canvassing?
Evelynne Delgado Garcia: So knowing that both of my parents are undocumented, that they can't vote, that I have a lot of other family members who are undocumented, who can't vote themselves, I know it's so important that, you know, I'm the voice for those who can't.
Ninety percent of Arizonans are expected to vote by mail or early in-person. The question, of course, is on election night what will their voices and their ballots tell us about Arizona and the country?
John Dickerson: If Donald Trump wins Arizona, what will he have done?
Jeff Flake: Defied the odds (laughs).
John Dickerson: Will he have found voters for him that kinda came outta the woodwork?
Jeff Flake: Yeah, I mean, when you look at those rallies, I mean there's something to that. We learned that in 2016.
John Dickerson: If Joe Biden wins Arizona, what will that mean for election night?
Jeff Flake: If he wins Arizona, if Arizona's results come in more quickly, as we think they will, he's got it. If you could put together as a Democrat, put together a campaign that could win this state, you're gonna win the country.
Produced by Draggan Mihailovich. Associate producer, Jacqueline Williams. Broadcast associates, Claire Fahy and Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Warren Lustig.