New Frontier

Can the Democrats win Colorado—and the rest of the West—in 2008?

March 2007

Can the Democrats win Colorado—and the rest of the West—in 2008?

In early January, the Democrats decided to bring their 2008 national convention to Denver. Business owners, hoteliers, and city bean counters did backflips over the expected $160 million cash dump that the hordes of politicians, TV crews, and hangers-on are expected to bring to town. Never mind that ordinary folk—especially those living or working downtown—gloomily envisioned a week of mayhem and started booking flights for long weekends in Mexico or advertising their coveted parking spaces on Craigslist.

The real winner, of course, isn’t Denver or its citizens—it’s the Democrats. By holding their convention in Denver, they’ve signaled to the country that they’re marching, knees high, into the West. It’s a bold move, and it’s long overdue: The last time the Dems held a convention in Denver was 1908, and it’s been 80 years since they held a convention west of Chicago or east of California. Over the next six pages, we’ll look at what the West means to the political left.


Why the Sudden Move Westward?

In the mid-20th century, a Democratic majority relied on a union between the Northeast and South. Today, that union is dead. “Since [1968], Republican presidential candidates have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the South’s electoral votes,” writes Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland–Baltimore County, in Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. “In the nine presidential elections between 1972 and 2004, Democrats have sent one lamb after another to their southern slaughter…. Of the 1,260 total electoral votes cast by the eleven southern states between 1972 and 2004, Republicans won 1,039 of them—almost 83 percent.” A slaughter indeed.

Without the South, the Democrats have been looking to the Midwest for votes. Ohio (population: 11.5 million), in particular, has become the swing state. If 60,000 Ohioans had switched their votes to John Kerry, the senator would have been hanging his windsurfing posters in the Oval Office. But the Democrats spent millions in Ohio—making it one of the main focuses of the presidential race—and they still lost. Meanwhile, as conservative writer Ryan Sager notes in The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, smaller swing states like Nevada (population 2.4 million), New Mexico (population 1.9 million), and, you guessed it, Colorado (population 4.7 million), were barely noticed. If just under 64,000 voters in those three states—about 50,000 in Colorado, 11,000 in Nevada, and 3,000 in New Mexico—had swung left, Kerry would also be president.

Though Ohio will remain a keystone, expect the Interior West to become a major battleground in 2008. “There’s going to be a huge amount of effort, time, and money spent on the presidential campaigns in the Rocky Mountain West,” says Mike Stratton, a Denver-based Democratic political consultant and senior adviser to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s presidential campaign. “A lot of people believe that the election is going to be won or lost in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Montana.”

Changing Belts

Past elections aside, a general population shift is also forcing the Democrats’ hand. The largely Democratic Northeast and Midwest have seen their populations stagnate, while the Republican South and the Southwest are growing at a breakneck pace. As the Brookings Institute notes in a recent study, this will have a profound effect on the Electoral College, which awards votes based upon the size of the population of individual states and is recalculated following each census. If population continues to soar in the “sunbelt” of the South and the West, as is expected, these states will start stealing votes from the “snowbelt” of the Northeast and the Midwest. In 2030, if the Republicans are still winning the states Bush won in 2004, they’ll double the size of their electoral victories, bumping their electoral advantage from 17 votes to 34. Democrats would have a steep hill to climb.

And so it is that the politicians and analysts are making noise about a new “Western strategy” for the Democratic Party. The idea? Taking a centrist approach to such troubling Western issues as the environment, public land use, and water conservation and rights, as well as broader issues like renewable energy, health care, immigration, and national security. The target? The traditionally right-leaning states that comprise the Interior West: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona.