PHOENIX — More than a decade after the housing market tanked in the Great Recession, taking with it their dreams of running their own business, Irene Montoya and Jason Hemphill were on the verge of rebuilding what they lost.
Montoya, 44, who has a penchant for fixing up old cars, had invested in an auto dealership. Hemphill, 48, an avid toy collector since he attended the original “Star Wars” premiere in 1977, was selling action figures and vintage toys online. The couple also launched other small ventures with the hopes of hedging their bets, including an auto rental service through the car-sharing app Turo and an Airbnb management company.
“We had all these kinds of things going on,” Montoya said, “really thinking we had ourselves covered this time.”
But nothing could prepare them for the pandemic that quickly triggered the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Now voters here are increasingly finding themselves on opposing ends of a precarious and bifurcated recovery that has President Trump at serious risk of losing a state he won in 2016. For some, Trump’s boasts of his “beautiful” pre-coronavirus economy — and pledges that it will soon roar back to life — are clashing against cold reality.
Polls indicate a blue shift in a state that has experienced major political and demographic changes in recent years. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a lead of 3.5 percentage points in Arizona, according to the RealClear Politics average of recent polls. As in national surveys, Trump scores better than Biden among Arizona voters on who would do a better job on the economy, although a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll gave the president just a 4-point lead on that issue.
Around Phoenix on a sweltering October afternoon, the further voters were from the economic pain, the likelier they were to echo Jeff Ravis, 57, a transportation relocation engineer who strolled into a polling place to vote early for Trump because he believed the president would get Americans back to work faster than Biden.
“He will help turn our economy around quicker,” said Ravis, a Republican. “I really think we need to have him in office four more years.”
But Guadalupe Gonzalez, 69, a retired electronic business inspector, walked away from the voting booth motivated to eject Trump from the White House while she struggles to make ends meet. Her 90-year-old mother can’t leave their home for fear of contracting the virus, Gonzalez said. Her 32-year-old grandson has moved in with his two teenage sons after he lost his job and could no longer afford his apartment.
“President Trump is not paying attention to anything,” she said. “He is just doing what the hell he wants.”
Back at their home in a southwestern Phoenix subdivision, Montoya, a registered Democrat, and Hemphill, a Navy veteran and registered independent with conservative leanings, mailed in ballots for Biden.
They don’t buy Trump’s promises to protect small business. Not when the coronavirus outbreak has ravaged their startups, not when they have failed to qualify for the Payroll Protection Program, and certainly not when they are scarcely hanging on to the middle class.
“He’s dangling a carrot on a stick,” Hemphill said.
It wasn’t too long ago that their prospects, like those of Arizona, had been on the rise.
Before the pandemic, the state had seen a drastic improvement in economic fortune since becoming one of the first to see its housing market crater in 2008 and one of the last to recover. Arizona went into the economic downturn that followed the coronavirus outbreak and lockdowns in a stronger position than most states, economists said. It had built up its rainy day fund and was among only 26 states that had seen their share of people ages 25 to 54 who had jobs return to a pre-Great Recession level.
In January, Republican Governor Doug Ducey had even announced the state would buy back state buildings that it sold in a desperate deal for cash in 2010, including its state Capitol and Supreme Court.
When Arizona became an epicenter of the pandemic in early summer, with cases rising to as many as 2,000 a day, its economy weathered the surge because Congress provided federal aid, including $1,200 stimulus checks and additional unemployment benefits, economists said. Some sectors, such as construction and retail, have strongly recovered, and the unemployment rate was 5.9 percent in August, less than half its peak from the spring.
Yet, the recovery is unevenly distributed.
Many in service industry jobs with lower wages are still out of work or have seen their hours slashed. The self-employed are particularly hard hit, making up the majority of the nearly 1.3 million people receiving unemployment benefits as of October, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
“The people who work from home and have that kind of flexibility are doing OK, but for this big swath of people who rely on face-to-face activity, there is a still a lot of pain there," said George Hammond, director of the Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona.
Some outside analysts predict the worst isn’t over for Arizona, or the nation. One forecast by Moody’s Analytics listed Arizona among the 10 states most likely to see the greatest declines in tax revenue from this recession. Mostly, there is a lot of uncertainty among economists about the factors that can’t be calculated into any forecasting model: what comes next as coronavirus cases are rising again.
“They are all projections,” said Barb Rosewicz, a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts' state fiscal health initiative. Arizonans "are taking a hit — it is not as big as some people have expected — but we don’t know how bad it’s going to get.”
Few can remember this much debate — or anxiety — over a presidential race in Arizona, which, with the exception of 1996, has delivered its electoral votes to the Republican candidate in every election since 1952. But along with the economy, the state’s changing demographics — Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, is the fastest-growing county in the country — are affecting the race, as progressives from California seeking more affordable housing and moderates from the Midwest looking for jobs and warmer weather have moved to Arizona.
Over the past decade, Latino voters, who now make up 24 percent of eligible voters, and grass-roots organizations here also have mobilized to new levels in the wake of divisive immigration rhetoric and punitive policies that some Republican state and local officials fomented long before Trump took office. And seniors and suburban voters — many of them white women — have soured on the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.
Exit polls from 2016 show Trump won Arizona by 13 points among voters 65 and older. But an AARP poll of the state released last month found the president trailing Biden by 2 points with that age cohort.
In some of the most conservative neighborhoods and suburbs of Phoenix, neighbors are quietly waging battles with rival campaign signs alongside Halloween decorations on neatly trimmed lawns.
As a sign of a Democratic shift, people point to Republicans losing their supermajorities in the state house and the narrow 2018 victory of Kyrsten Sinema, who became the first Democrat elected to the US Senate from Arizona in 30 years. This fall, Democrat Mark Kelly has maintained a strong polling lead over Republican Senator Martha McSally.
On visits to the state, Trump and his surrogates have touted the Republican tax cuts, deregulation, and pre-pandemic low unemployment numbers — especially for Black and Latino men — that they say have been a boon for Arizona’s workers and businesses.
Trump has delivered on those issues, including “freer and fairer trade deals” and “building the world’s greatest economy,” Samantha Zagar, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary, said in a statement.
But Biden has said Trump inherited that booming economy from the Obama-Biden administration and is now presiding over one of the worst economies in modern US history.
Kirk Adams, a Republican and former speaker of the House in the state Legislature, said both Trump and Biden hold some truths: Trump started from a stronger position after the economy improved dramatically under the Obama-Biden administration, he said, but the Republican Congress and the president “absolutely juiced the economy."
For many in the state’s manufacturing and tech sectors, where investment and activity are still growing, the economy might not be a factor in this election. But Adams acknowledged “that is almost insensitive to say if you were in the restaurant business or the retail business or the fitness business — or any of those things that have been hit really, really hard."
Montoya and Hemphill feel the economic uncertainty deep in their bones.
Fifteen minutes before the end of his shift on New Year’s Eve 2018, Hemphill walked into his manager’s office at Costco and handed in his two-week notice handwritten on a sheet of notebook paper. The moment had been a decade in the making: Ten years of cutting family expenses, investing in stocks, and diligently stowing away money after the Great Recession wiped out five rental properties, years of savings, and their hopes of opening a car dealership.
On their second foray into entrepreneurship, they started slowly, first renting out their cars through Turo, then cleaning and managing Airbnb properties and listing spare rooms to share in their own home. In the summer of 2019, they finally did open the doors to their dealership, Green Hippo Auto.
“We did the things they said to do,” Hemphill said.
It was in cleaning out one of those spaces that Montoya came across Hemphill’s vintage toy collection, and he decided it was time to sell his prized possessions. The couple now hunt for new hot toys or nostalgic classics that are hard to find — such as Dory from “Finding Nemo” or the rare Scooby-Doo from old cartoons — to resell on Amazon, Ebay, and other sites.
The toy sales became a lifeline as the pandemic’s economic devastation forced them to close their dealership, the rental service, and the management company. Montoya also quickly pivoted to buying wholesale vintage clothes from friends and selling items online. Their home has become a temporary warehouse, with toys displayed on shelves or stored alongside garments in stacks of plastic bins and cardboard boxes.
In their online ventures, Montoya and Hemphill have come to represent the gig and independent workers who are a growing sector of many regional economies and who were particularly hard hit in Arizona as the leisure and hospitality industries here and nationwide endured the largest losses.
And like many in this fast-evolving field, they fell through the cracks of federal aid initiatives.
“The people like us who are small business owners ... we know the government has done nothing to help us,” Montoya said. “We are left in the dark.”