The Mountain West, once GOP turf, is now competitive
The interior West has added new independent and Latino voters who are up for grabs.
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That's the case with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat elected in 2004. He favors the death penalty and brags about cutting taxes, and he does it with the folksy swagger of a farmer-turned-governor who carries a gun and takes his dog to work. "I'm a businessman, scientist, and rancher who ran for governor," says Governor Schweitzer in a phone interview.Skip to next paragraph
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He describes Montana newcomers as people in their late 40s, upper middle-class or above, who are either business owners or "at such a stage in their career where they can effectively phone it in."
This in-migration has moved the interior West's economy beyond ranching and mining, says Larry Swanson, an economist at the University of Montana in Missoula. "The Rocky Mountain West is very urban in character. It's not growing because of oil and gas and mining; it's growing because its cities are growing."
As a result, the urban vote has become decisive. However, the cities are not Democratic bastions, but tend to be nonpartisan and pragmatic, according to Dr. Swanson's research.
Staples of the old rural politics here no longer work, he says. Education has a higher value now. Conservation is a consensus position, because the environment is key to the new economy. There's enthusiasm around tapping the region's renewable energy potential – something presidential candidates emphasized while campaigning in Nevada.
The Southwest is even more in play because Latino immigrants – who lean Democratic – are now substantial voting populations.
The influx of young, itinerant people has contributed to the doubling of independents across the West in the past six years, says Ciruli. The West is not undergoing a political realignment, Ciruli argues, but reflects independents favoring Democrats for now. Others suggest that the long-term growth in the Hispanic population could tip the region for the Democrats for years to come.
Several presidential candidates can claim some appeal in the West. Sen. John McCain (R) and Sen. Barack Obama (D) both attract independents, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) has strong support from Latinos. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has demonstrated Mormons will organize and vote for him.
A key to success in the region would be to simply show up, experts say. "Go there. [John] Kerry didn't go there. [Al] Gore spent hardly any time there," says Tom Schaller, author of "Whistling Past Dixie," a book arguing that Democrats should look for national gains in the West. "The smartest thing Howard Dean ever did was pick Denver as the convention [site]."