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Survey bucks the conventional wisdom about Arizona voter divisions

Results from a recent survey buck the conventional wisdom about election-year politicking and strategies that appeal to each party’s political base.

Dubbed the Arizona Voter’s Agenda, the Center for the Future of Arizona teamed up with HighGround Public Affairs with a goal of finding common ground among voters — Democrats, Republicans, independents and non-affiliated Arizonans.

The survey was restricted to likely voters, “people who have a history of participating in the election. It is highly likely that they’ll participate in 2022,” said Paul Bentz, chief pollster at HighGround.

“The anticipation here is to reflect accurately what voters who are going to show up in this election care about, and some of the areas in which there is significant agreement,” he added.

Viewed broadly, the issues that likely voters want to hear most about aren’t much of a surprise.

Many of the queries in the survey were posed in an open-ended way — raising questions that matter to voters, not answers. Sybil Francis, president and CEO of CFA, said that was by design.

“We didn’t ask the voters for answers,” she said. “We asked them what they wanted to hear from the candidates.”

The economy, education and immigration all made the cut in a series of survey results released by CFA over the last three weeks. That makes sense to Lorna Romero Ferguson, a political consultant working with the Republican Legislative Victory Fund. 

“Jobs and the economy, education, immigration, were in the top five of those responses, which are traditionally the three issues that just kind of rotate in importance, depending on the election cycle,” Romero Ferguson said. “Especially here in Arizona immigration, especially if you're looking at a Republican primary audience. That's usually in the top three, regardless of the election cycle.”

But look closer, and some survey answers clash with traditional campaign narratives about those same issues.

Rather than cut taxes — a frequent GOP talking point in election years — 82% of likely voters want Arizona lawmakers to make strategic investments in the state — infrastructure and housing affordability, to name a few.

As for immigration, there’s not broad support for building a wall — but 81% of likely voters do support comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship.

“Arizona voters just don't see building a wall as the solution,” Francis said. “They want a comprehensive approach to achieving border security and getting economic success that includes immigration reform, and creating a functioning border for commerce.”

Put another way, “there are a lot of things that aren't being discussed right now that ought to be, because a large portion of the electorate care about them,” Bentz said.

So why aren’t candidates discussing those issues with broad appeal? Bentz chalked it up in part to old habits.

“I think there is a fear of stepping outside of what the other candidates are doing, and taking a slightly different approach to it,” Bentz said. “My colleague calls it fishing off the same side of the boat.”

Romero Ferguson said candidates also have to be strategic with limited time and resources to reach voters.  That’s why you see digital and TV ads with explosive imagery — and perhaps a three- to five0second soundbite to get people’s attention.

For instance: A television spot aired by U.S. Senate candidate Jim Lamon, a Republican, depicted him in an Old West shootout with Democrats.

“We can probably see one of those videos on mute, and be able to tell just by the imagery, what you know, what message they're trying to convey,” Romero Ferguson said.

The misconception, Bentz said, is that catering to ideological extremes is the only way to win. And he warned against ideologically-driven talking points that aren’t popular with most voters, like eliminating Arizona’s mail voting system.

“Some of the candidates that have really doubled down on that will find themselves challenged to pivot back in the general election,” he said.

Both Bentz and Romero Ferguson agree the onus for changing the campaign narrative isn’t just on candidates. Reporters play an important role in driving the conversation.

“There's a tendency that the phone calls or the outreach that you get from reporters are what those more controversial hot-button issues are gonna be, versus some of the content that we saw on this poll,” Romero Ferguson said.

The solution? 

More questions about strategic investments, less about high-noon campaign ads.

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.