Convention Spotlights Battle for the Intermountain West
By Dan Balz
DENVER -- This is a presidential campaign in which old assumptions about the electoral map and the country's political geography are under assault. By November, familiar patterns of red and blue may prevail, but for now, the possibilities for change are significant and intriguing.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Intermountain West, the stretch of states between the Pacific Coast and the Plains. Rapid growth and demographic upheaval have put a region once considered reliably Republican in presidential races into play.
If the major battleground in this campaign remains, as always, the old industrial heartland of America -- states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- then the next most significant arena is the Rocky Mountain West. Predict the winner of, say, Colorado, and you very likely may have named the next president of the United States.
The Democrats are coming to Denver next week to highlight their determination to compete for the electoral votes of the states in the Mountain West. Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are high on the list of possible red-to-blue conversions this fall. Longer-term trends suggest Arizona soon may join those three as a swing, rather than safely Republican, state, though Arizona still looks like a safe Republican state for this year.
In John McCain and Barack Obama, voters have two candidates who, for different reasons, will find receptive audiences in the Mountain states. McCain, though not born in the West, has adopted Arizona as his home state, and his brand of conservative maverick politics finds welcome in the region. Obama, however, has also demonstrated considerable appeal in a region where a rising Hispanic population and an increasingly educated workforce are reshaping the balance of political power.
That makes for a more competitive balance between the candidates than during the last campaign, when President Bush enjoyed a clear cultural advantage over John Kerry in these states. Bush was always more comfortable in a place with "more boots than suits," he liked to tell audiences. Even those in suits appreciated the message. Kerry, though born in Colorado, struggled to make the same connection.
What has turned this region into a competitive battleground, however, is less the characteristics of the two candidates and more the underlying changes in their populations. The Brookings Institution has produced a new report, authored by William Frey and Ruy Teixeira, that provides an extraordinarily detailed and insightful assessment of how economic and demographic shifts are reshaping Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.
The Frey-Teixeira study is a rich mixture of census data and political analysis with lengthy profiles of each state. "One reason these states are increasingly 'in play,'" they write, "is the rapid population growth among two key demographic segments -- Hispanics and white college graduates -- and the concomitant decline of the white working class.
Much has been said and written about the importance of white working class voters in this election, and, in particular, Obama's struggle to gain more support among them. What Frey and Teixeira underscore is that, in these mountain states, the key to McCain's hopes lies in holding onto as many white working class voters as possible. If he does not, he and the Republicans could be overrun by better-educated voters, who are trending toward the Democrats, and the rising Hispanic population, among whom Democrats still enjoy a significant advantage.
Nevada and Arizona are two of the fastest growing states in the nation. Colorado ranks in the top 10. New Mexico, while farther down the ladder, still is growing faster than the nation as a whole. What fuels the growth rates is a combination of immigration and domestic migration, with huge numbers of Californians in particular moving into Nevada and Arizona and, to a lesser extent, Colorado.
In the past 20 years, there have been significant shifts in the political balance. Take Colorado, given its centrality in this year's presidential race. In every region of the state -- the slower-growing eastern side and a western slice excepted -- Democrats improved their vote between 1988 and 2004.
Most of the areas of Democratic support are growing. For Republicans, the picture is mixed. Virtually every shrinking county has been a source of GOP strength in presidential elections. But many GOP counties are also growing and some quite rapidly.
That suggests that the long-term battle for Colorado -- and, as the Brookings report makes clear, the other three states -- is anything but static or predictable, though this fall's outcome may give a sense of whether the recent shifts toward the Democrats are likely to continue apace in coming years.
Obama and McCain will slug it out in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania through much of the fall. Obama will continue efforts to put states like Virginia and North Carolina into play and is making efforts in such bright red states as Alaska.
But there is no question that a Democratic breakthrough in the Intermountain West would represent a major realignment in the balance of power between the parties. That is by no means certain, but the competition has never been as fierce here as it is right now.
Web Politics Editor
August 21, 2008; 2:06 PM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Battlegrounds , Dan Balz's Take , John McCain
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