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How The West Could Be Won

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/cactus.jpgPhoto Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

“I guess this was how the West was won,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (d-N.Y.) told cheering supporters in Las Vegas after the Nevada caucuses last month.

Clinton’s proclamation was premature — she has not yet won the West — but savvy, for the West is likely to determine the victor in this year’s presidential campaign. With more than 2,000 convention delegates at stake for the Democrats and more than a 1,000 for the Republicans, the looming Feb. 5 contests in California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Idaho will almost certainly identify the front-runners in each party’s nomination battle. And, looking toward the November election, the prominence of the West and the growing influence of the Latino vote signal a regional shift in the locus of power in presidential politics.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

The inland West is the one region of Red America that might turn blue in November and since it is gaining population, congressional seats and electoral votes, it could construct the foundation for long-term Democratic majorities. Demographically, states like Nevada and Colorado are coming to resemble staunchly Democratic California, with large numbers of Latinos and the influx of educated, affluent workers in media, information technology, and financial services — many of them migrants from the Golden State. Democrats already hold governorships in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, and Senate seats in Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. In 2004, any two of those four states–Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona–would have put Sen. John Kerry in the White House, even without Ohio’s closely contested electoral votes.

For decades, Republicans used their strength in the South to construct winning coalitions in national elections. Now the West might offer the Democrats the path to another realignment, the path to an Electoral college majority that does not rely on winning bitterly contested “swing states” like Ohio and Florida. It’s no accident that the Democrats chose Denver as the site for their 2008 Convention.

Safely Republican for most of the 20th century, the fiercely individualistic West has long cherished a romantic version of its pioneer heritage and frequently asserted its independence from Washington. At the same time, no section of the country has had to negotiate more complex patterns of racial conflict than the West, and no region has depended more on the largesse of the federal government over issues like water and land rights — a fact that has accounted for the region’s defection in hard times to Democrats like William Jennings Bryan and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The people of the mountains and desert have also expressed more skepticism about overseas interventions than their coastal fellow citizens. It is a land of great emptiness, as the critic Alfred Kazin famously mused, punctuated by giant irrigation projects and air force bases.

And it will soon displace the South as the strategic battleground of national politics. In 1964, on the morning after signing the landmark Civil Rights Act, a strangely melancholy President Lyndon B. Johnson told his young aid Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for my lifetime and yours.” LBJ proved a shrewd prophet.

For 40 years, ever since Richard M. Nixon targeted white Southerners in 1968, the South has formed the linchpin of the Republican ascendancy in national campaigns. As the once Democratic Solid South — the century-long hangover of the Civil War and Reconstruction — became more and more Republican in the wake of the Sunbelt boom and the Civil Rights revolution, Republicans used their Dixie stronghold as a firm base for presidential politics.

Since 1968, only two Democrats have captured the White House twice — and Southern governors headed both of those tickets. Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and Bill Clinton won with 43 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race against President George H.W. Bush and Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Carter and Clinton carried Southern states that most other Democratic standard-bearers — from George S. McGovern, in 1972, to Walter F. Mondale, in 1984, to John Kerry, in 2004 — pretty much conceded to the GOP.

Clinton and Carter’s victories suggested that Democrats could only win the presidency if they appealed to Southern voters. Recent campaigns have only confirmed this conventional wisdom. Even without Florida’s contested electoral votes, Al Gore would have captured the White House in 2000 if he had carried his home state of Tennessee or Clinton’s Arkansas. And Kerry failed to win a single state below the Mason-Dixon line in 2004. Indeed, John Edwards’ unsuccessful campaign rested its entire strategy on this truism that only a Southerner can lead the Democrats to victory in November.

But the 2008 electoral map suggests another approach. While Democrats remain unlikely to win many electoral votes in the South, the inland West might provide the decisive margin for the Democratic ticket.

Moreover, the strife over immigration within the GOP, especially the leading role that militant opponents of immigration have played in the early primaries, offers the Democrats a strong advantage in the region. Over the past three decades, successful Republicans, like Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have broken the Democratic stranglehold on Latino voters. Carefully carving out moderate positions on issues like immigration and bilingual education, they each won more than 35 percent of the Latino vote.

Meanwhile, Republicans have fared poorly in national elections when they have been unable to amass substantial support among Latinos. Ford in 1976 (18 percent of the Latino vote), George H.W. Bush in 1992 (24 percent) and Bob Dole in 1996 (21 percent) all met defeat in November. Except for Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), the lone Westerner among the leading candidates, all the current GOP contenders have taken hard-line positions against immigration.

Still, the Democrats will face a difficult task — especially if McCain captures the Republican nomination. When Bill Clinton suggested eliminating grazing subsidies and allowing the market establish prices for grazing on public lands, Western ranchers denounced this return to laissez-faire as an outrage of Big Government interference with the region’s treasured freedoms.

The trick for Democrats in 2008 will be to attract Latino voters, new arrivals and critics of the Iraq war without arousing traditional Western fears about interference with the region’s long-established advantages and prerogatives.

Celebrating the Democratic Party’s decision to hold its national nominating convention in his city, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper suggested that the Mile High City embodied “the 21st century ideals” that would “help lead America in the year 2008 and beyond.” With the West so critical to this year’s presidential campaign, the mayor’s cheer-leading for his hometown might turn out to be right on target.

Bruce J. Schulman is professor of history at Boston University. He is the author of “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics” and “From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt : Federal Policy, Economic Development and the Transformation of the South 1938-1980.”


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