Study Explores Populist Radical Right Politics In 2018 Arizona Senate Race

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, July 21, 2020 - 1:09pm
Updated: Tuesday, July 21, 2020 - 1:10pm

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Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally
Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally campaigns
Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Arizona's 2020 U.S. Senate race is already one of the most watched and most expensive in the nation as Democrat Mark Kelly attempts to take the seat currently held by Republican Martha McSally. McSally's road to the Senate was a bumpy one. She was defeated by Kyrsten Sinema before eventually being appointed to the seat long held by the late Sen. John McCain. But even before that, McSally faced an intense primary, competing with former state senator Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. That battle intrigued Canadian Jeremy Roberts enough that he used it as the centerpiece of a study of populist radical right politics via a survey of 1,052 Arizona Republicans ahead of that August 2018 primary. His study was published online in the journal  Politics and Governance 2020. I spoke with Roberts and asked him to explain why as a doctoral candidate in Canada, he was interested in Arizona's primary.

JEREMY ROBERTS: So I'm a scholar of the radical right. I like to focus on the United States in particular, because, you know, it's geographically close and it's, it's really interesting, the developments that have happened in recent years. And so I was looking at the literature on the European right, which has been a force in politics for a much longer time than it has in the United States. I mean, there's been a long history of the radical right in the United States, but it's never really come to the fore in the way that it has. It had to be a Republican primary, because that's where the conservative battle is fought in the United States. I wanted to be at state level because that would help me avoid the problems of gerrymandering, for example — you can't gerrymander a state. I wanted there to be no incumbent, and I wanted there to be a clear radical right option and sort of a more mainstream establishment option, and Arizona ticked all those boxes. I think the only other candidate I had was Florida.

GOLDSTEIN: How much of this came down to the Republican establishment, whatever that is right now, and those who are more activist when it comes to a party trying to change the direction of what was going on?

ROBERTS: I would think actually probably not a whole lot. I think my perspective on Sheriff Joe is that, you know, he was defeated in 2016 despite his, his close association with the president. Kelli Ward also competed for the same constituency that Sheriff Joe did, right? And I think she sort of outcompeted him in some of the critical areas where he would have been able to garner support. So some of the people who might have been inclined to go with Sheriff Joe were actually likely more attracted to the suite of options that Kelli Ward presented to them.

GOLDSTEIN: How important an issue was immigration to these folks, as you call the populist radical right?

ROBERTS: I asked in my study of roughly a thousand Arizona Republicans in the week leading up to the primary about immigration, right? And so I ask them questions like, "Are immigrants good for the economy?" And what I found was that if you answered that question as sort of a strong disagree, you were more likely to vote for somebody like Martha McSally. And if you answered that question sort of 'strongly agree,' you were far more likely to support Sheriff Joe, which I thought was really, really, really interesting — I think it was one and a half times more likely for every one you increase on a five point scale. So while I can't say that that definitively tipped things, I can say that when I did ask people, you know, what the most important issue was, immigration was the top of the pile. You know, it beat out health care and Social Security and things like that.

GOLDSTEIN: Was there anything that struck you that what was going on in Arizona particular was more of what we're finding in Europe? Was it less so? Were there takeaways you had there?

ROBERTS: Yeah. So there are two key hypotheses that I, that I started with when I went into this, right? And I developed them based on the European literature. So the first hypothesis really was that there's this convergence between the Liberal and the Conservative Party. So in, in Europe, you usually have a multi-party system because of the way their elections work. They're proportionally represented in parliament, so you can basically vote for whoever you want, and if you get 5% of the vote, you get 5% of the seats, right? It's usually not that clean, but that's the idea. In the United States, it's the 'first past the post' system. So there's no real room for a third party. You just end up being a spoiler and likely voting for a third party would result in the candidate you don't like winning. It was interesting that the competition would be intraparty. And so I thought one of the things that would, would benefit the radical right was if voters believed that sort of the mainstream Republican establishment and the mainstream Liberal establishment,  so the Democrats and Republicans, were one and the same. And I'm sure you've heard people talking about Republicans in name only.

GOLDSTEIN: Right, of course. Right, yeah.

ROBERTS: I hypothesized very strongly that voters of Arpaio and Ward actually would believe that Republicans In Name Only (RINOs) were a problem. And as it turns out, the analysis suggested that McSally's voters didn't think RINOs were a huge deal. Arpaio's voters didn't think RINOs were a huge deal, but Ward's voters did. So that's similar to the European case, right?

GOLDSTEIN: Social media. That is the scourge for some people and for others it is, it's a great opportunity to to learn about different perspectives. So how did the three candidates utilize social media or what did you find about folks who, who seemed to feel one way about a particular issue?

ROBERTS: So I didn't really track how vocal the candidates were on social media themselves, right? So I wasn't, you know, analyzing Ward tweets or anything like that. But what I did look at was the nature of their appeal and how it was covered by outlets that were widely shared on social media, right? So Kelli Ward, for example, was well-known for her association with right-wing outlets like Breitbart for, you know, Steve Bannon attended her campaign launch, as an example. And several of her staffers did work for Breitbart. She campaigned with Mike Cernovich, who is a sort of a fiery provocateur. He's a, he's an important figure in sort of the "alt-right" social media ecosystem. And my hypothesis was really centered around — this is actually my second hypothesis — was really centered around this idea that the nature of social media is such that it is symbiotic with the radical right or the far right. And so we saw that in Europe, right? There's, it's not just Internet and social media, it's other things like tabloids, you know, even cable channels. I hypothesized if people were exposed to social media, they should be more likely to support a candidate on the far right or the radical right. And as it turns out, that was true for Kelli Ward, almost twice as likely if you go to social media for news you were to support Kelli Ward, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: What did you learn from Arizona, and do you think it is something that could be applicable to any other state? We like to think we're unique here in Arizona, but maybe not.

ROBERTS: The key takeaway for me is that the reality, sort of the political reality, as it's understood by observers like myself and yourself, is not necessarily relevant if you can effectively message and reach people in channels that are appealing to them. So what I mean by that is, you know, there's good research. There's a woman named Frances Lee who wrote a book a couple of years back that talks about how the parties are farther apart now than they have ever been. Yet a non-insubstantial portion of my respondents on my survey said that, you know, the parties were, were similar or the same. The establishment, right? And I mean, that's, that's kind of an absurd statement when you think about, you know, even five years ago, Martha McSally was being vetted by the House GOP as a really strong candidate. You know, she, she ran for office several times, she had support of the establishment, like the party establishment, they raised money for her and everything. And now people are saying, "Oh, you know, Joe Arpaio actually called her a Democrat." It's shocking, but that's sort of the nature of political competition going forward. So the implications, I think, for, for further study are that you can create a reality. And some people will accept that as true or they'll perceive it to be true, and as long as they perceive it to be true, it, it doesn't matter whether it's true or not. It'll still impact how they make candidate selection, right? So if you genuinely believe that the parties are the same, you probably are going to vote for somebody who comes in and says, "No, I'm gonna shake things up." It doesn't matter how much they've actually diverged.

GOLDSTEIN: Jeremy Roberts is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Western University in Ontario, Canada. His study's online in the journal Politics and Governance 2020.

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