Though Hispanics make up a larger portion of the United States population every year, Colorado’s location in the Southwest means it’s on the lead edge of the curve. About 910,000—roughly one out of five—Coloradans are Hispanic, a number that’s only growing.
That’s a problem for Republicans. Although many Hispanics are Catholic and tend to be socially conservative, some Republicans have taken radical stances in the current immigration battle, alienating a potentially promising constituency. (Watch the upcoming Tancredo presidential run.)
Not all Republicans have had such a knee-jerk reaction—President Bush, for one, has been a firm proponent of a guest-worker program and enjoys relatively high support among the Hispanic community. Even Bush’s support, however, has been overstated. In 2004, the media made a big deal about Bush winning 44 percent of the national Hispanic vote (a number that was, upon further study, reduced to 40 percent). In Colorado, however, only 30 percent of Hispanics voted for Bush. And while some in the media attributed Kerry’s success with Colorado Hispanics to the “Ken Salazar coat-tailing effect,” a look back at 2000 shows that the left/right split was nearly the same (Gore: 67 percent, Bush: 33 percent).
It is fitting that Barry Goldwater, a Westerner and Arizona senator, popularized libertarianism. The “live and let live” ideology advocates limited government interference into the economic and social lives of its citizens. In other words, the government should stay out of our homes, keep gun-control laws loose, and tolerate abortion, gay rights, and free speech; of course, taxes should be as low as possible. According to the Cato Institute, 13 percent of Americans—around 28 million—possess libertarian beliefs. Roughly a third of that group live in the Western United States, making ours the most libertarian region in the country.
So, while the West may be fiscally conservative, a virulent strain of social libertarianism runs through it as well, as Sager notes in Elephant. Looking at studies from the Pew Research Center, he points out that on issues like religion, gay rights, and book banning, there’s a “cultural gulf between the South and the interior West—with the interior West often looking in its attitudes much closer to blue-state Northeasterners and Pacific Coasters than to their fellow red staters. Cultural libertarianism…is pretty deeply ingrained in the West.”
Conversely, the West contains the fewest number of evangelical Christians, who often hold socially conservative stances. A recent study showed that, despite the presence of organizations like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, only 24 percent of Coloradans identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Protestants. Sounds like a lot, but that puts Colorado toward the bottom of the evangelical list, with states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington. Percentages in states like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas were twice as high as Colorado’s.
Some skeptics have pointed to Colorado’s recent gay-marriage ban as an example of anti-libertarianism, but it’s not so black and white. Colorado passed the ban, but it did so by a small margin—56 percent of voters approved it, placing Colorado in the company of centrist and liberal-leaning Wisconsin and Oregon. Meanwhile, the gay-marriage ban approval rate topped 80 percent in fire-engine-red states like Tennessee and Alabama. Looking at the chart above, there’s a strong correlation between a state’s percentage of evangelical constituents and the strength of the gay-marriage bans.
National Republicans also felt the wrath of the libertarians. As the Bush administration courted the socially conservative evangelical vote (see: Terry Schiavo, gay-marriage bans), ran up record deficits, and pushed through the privacy-infringing Patriot Act, a substantial portion of the libertarian vote switched sides. While Bush won 72 percent of the libertarian vote in 2000, his support dropped to 59 percent in the 2004 election.
A prescient Barry Goldwater predicted the fraying of the Republicans’ social conservative and libertarian marriage as early as 1994: “When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it,” he told The Washington Post. “If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
In a state where registered Republicans (36 percent of voters) outnumber Democrats (30 percent), how can the Dems ever win? The answer: unaffiliated, or independent, voters. Though independents are generally considered a valuable swing group, that’s not totally the case—the name “independent” is actually a bit of a misnomer.
According to election surveys by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 74 percent of national “independent” voters lean toward one of the two major parties. And the Democrats have the edge—43 percent of “independent” voters lean Democrat, while only 31 percent lean Republican. With over a million so-called independents in Colorado, that’s enough to pull the Democrats a lot closer to a 2008 victory. Look.
If the Annenberg study is right, then Colorado Democrats are within spitting distance of the Republicans. And election numbers support the Democratic tilt. According to CNN exit polls, 52 percent of Colorado independents voted for John Kerry in 2004, and only 45 percent for Bush. In 2006 Western races for the House, the split was even more pronounced—58 percent of independents voted for Democrats, while a scant 35 percent sided with Republicans.