LOS ANGELES — THE great population push into the Southwest during the last decade has meant more pulls on the voting lever to limit government in everything from taxes to tourism. Ironically, a new economics-driven conservatism has brought more "liberal" candidates into the center where most elections are decided. One outcome: Many traditionally Republican states are leaning toward Bill Clinton.
The region - California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Hawaii - took in nearly half the country's new residents in the 1980s and expanded, on average, at three times the national rate of 9.8 percent.
This has complicated the political dynamics with new distinctions: urban vs. rural, newcomers vs. old-timers, manufacturing and high-tech (new issues) vs. natural-resource-based economics (past issues).
The population increase in urban areas has spearheaded more debates about government regulation of public lands, growth issues, and the environment. It has magnified differences between mountain, desert, and coastal states, megastates such as California versus ministates such as Utah.
With the region mired in recession and aftershocks from the savings-and-loan crisis reverberating well beyond its Arizona epicenter, the new people and politics translate for 1992 into far more voter uneasiness and ballots chock-full of initiatives.
"There has always been an antigovernment mood across the West," says Joel Kotkin, senior fellow at the Denver-based Center for the New West. "This year that mood has accelerated." Many ballot initiatives
Arizona has 14 initiatives on the November ballot, including those on state and federal term limits and legislative salaries. Colorado has 13, including those for technical changes to its constitution, a victim's bill of rights, voter approval for tax increases, and gambling rights.
Among California's 13 initiatives are those for federal term limits, elimination of the snack-food sales tax, and penalties for legislators who do not complete the state budget on time.
Nevada and Utah each have one ballot initiative, and neither New Mexico nor Hawaii has an initiative process.
If there is a trend in voting patterns here, it is a shift to the center. Colorado, New Mexico, and California are already in Clinton's camp, and Nevada and Arizona are leaning in that direction. Several polls and pundits say Utah may be the only state solidly behind Bush. The fact that Bill Clinton is competitive in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, some of the region's most conservative states, "is a historical precedent," Mr. Kotkin says.
Though the anti-incumbent mood is expected to throw out Democrats and Republicans in roughly proportionate numbers in state and congressional elections, Kotkin says, "this year, the [antigovernment] mood translates into `get rid of Bush.' "
Steve Levy, president of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, says the gradual loss of federal aid to state and local governments is the single greatest reason for these states' continued budgetary problems over the 12 years.
As in other regions, the economy is the top issue concerning the Southwest's voters. Looking back at the last 12 years, observers see a business-climate boom gone sour when concomitant government services and programs failed to keep pace. Boom not shown in income data
Andy Grose, president of Westrends, a research group that tracks population and social trends across the West, says that although the West has enjoyed a remarkable boom in manufacturing and export industries, figures showing a parallel rise in jobs and income are misleading. "The manufacturing boom of the West is not reflected in the income data," Mr. Grose says. "Westerners as a whole are not doing as well as the rest of the country."
Hawaii, separated from the rest of the Southwest by thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, is one state that has done well under Presidents Reagan and Bush, though its tourism-boom growth has slowed because of worldwide recession and a drop-off in Japanese investment. "Hawaiians are better off than 12 years ago," says Chuck Nishimura, a state monitor for the Legislative Reference Bureau. Five times the state's 1 million population visit every year, generating half the islands' wealth.
Still, the state has voted in Democratic governors and legislatures every year since 1965 and will continue its liberal bent, with polls showing the state firmly behind Clinton. Top issues this fall are jobs, housing, transportation, and the environment.
Other observers see five trends shaping voting concerns for the Southwest in November and beyond:
* The suburbanization of cities such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque, N.M., Phoenix, Denver, and California's "Inland Empire" - many as bastions for those who work at home on computer. "As people push into edge cities, they want to control the land, the water, and air," says Phil Burgess, president of the Denver-based Center for the New West. "That means new pushes for political reform from more directions."
* Economic diversification. Content surveys of periodicals and legislative dockets from 1980-90 have shown a shift away from the once-dominant concerns of extracting industries - oil, coal, and shale - to some that weren't even on the radar screen back then: development of biotechnology, and export of computer peripherals, for example. Other concerns have come with the population rise - tourism, construction, public utilities, finance, insurance, and real estate.
"For the first half of the '80s, we had a commercial- and residential-building boom that brought everything with it," says Dr. Timothy Hogan, program director at Arizona State University's Center for Business Research. A 1986 tax-law change halted the influx, he notes, with Phoenix now sitting on a 33 percent surplus of commercial space.
* Emphasis on human resources. "There is a broad recognition that the future of the West rests with brains more than brawn," Mr. Burgess says.
Noting an issue agenda increasingly dominated by education, health care, welfare services, and service industries, Burgess says, "there has been a total reorientation of leadership among Western governors around these issues."
* Continued gains by women in office. Led by California with 81 women currently seeking state Assembly seats, compared with 46 just two years ago, the Southwest has several women running in key races. Besides the first woman to run for the Supreme Court in Utah, California has two women with giant leads for separate United States Senate seats.
* Global economy. Shifts in the global economy are behind much of the population shifts to the Southwest. The combined port of Long Beach, Calif., and Los Angeles now ship twice that of New York, and Pacific trade is twice that across the Atlantic.
* Public lands. "We have reached the boiling point in the whole issue of public access to public lands," says Joan Reiss, California/Nevada regional director of the Wilderness Society.
"People are realizing that when you live in a region that is 60 to 90 percent owned by the state or federal government, the wealth of that city or town depends on access [to that land]," she says.