Yea, But Can The Democrats Win?
Maybe. Check that—a really big maybe.
As with the 2006 midterms, the biggest issue in the 2008 presidential election will be the war in Iraq. If Bush’s “surge” of 21,500 troops manages to quell the insurgency and turn the tide of the war, Republicans—particularly war advocates like Arizona Senator John McCain—may ride the crest into the Oval Office. If the surge—or, as former North Carolina Senator John Edwards has dubbed it, the “McCain Doctrine”— fails, the Republican backers may suffer another “thumpin’.”
Regardless, for any candidate to succeed in the West, he or she will need to take a strong stand on national security. “You can be against the war in Iraq,” says analyst Sondermann, “but you still have to demonstrate some muscle on national-security issues. You cannot come from the pacifist wing of the Democratic party.”
Politicians successful in the West have also been willing to step out of the party line and stake out their own positions. Witness: John McCain (campaign finance), Tom Tancredo (immigration), Ken Salazar (Alberto Gonzales’ confirmation), and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (declared a state of emergency due to illegal immigration). To succeed in the West, says Sondermann, Democrats have to worry “whether they’re regarded as a predictable card-carrying liberal, whether they’re supported vociferously by every one of the vocal interest groups, or whether they have this Western degree of independence.”
As of now, only two Western candidates are making noise: Bill Richardson and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. Both have taken strong stands on national security and immigration and appeal to the kind of Americans living in the West—and, for that matter, the Midwest or the South. In other words, the regular Joe you’d like to meet up with to have a beer and watch football. As of press time, only Richardson is in the race, having started an “exploratory committee” to look at his presidential chances.
“Those are candidates who’ve proven their knack for resonating with Western voters,” says Sondermann. “But color me a little bit doubtful that they’re going to be among the finalists.” Political scientist Schaller agrees: “I don’t think the Democrats are going to have a Western candidate on the top of the ticket. But they’d be very smart to find a Western candidate to be the vice presidential nominee.”
A centrist Democrat, however, isn’t going to appease the party’s traditional coastal base. “The problem—and the same holds true for Republicans—is that it’s awful hard to nominate somebody who upsets the extremists of your party,” says Denver-based political analyst Katy Atkinson. “It’s the extremists that tend to turn out for the primaries.”
And the Democratic extremists (read: coastal liberals) are more likely to vote for, well, a coastal liberal, who is bound to struggle in Colorado and the West. “A Democrat from the Northeast out of the John Kerry mold is going to have a huge uphill climb in Colorado,” says Sondermann. Remember those pictures of Kerry snowboarding in Sun Valley, Idaho, and goose hunting with locals in Ohio? Those stunts don’t play well in the West, where voters have a hair-trigger bullshit detector. “When John Kerry came to Nevada to speak, he said, ‘It’s great to be here in Nev-ODD-a,’” says Stratton, Richardson’s campaign adviser. “That said it right there.”
Are there any big-time East-of-the Mississippi liberals who might fare better than Kerry? North Carolina’s John Edwards already sunk with Kerry in ’04. Illinois Senator Barack Obama? Untested. New York Senator Hillary Clinton? Plenty of baggage from a life spent in politics.
It’s a classic Catch-22: The traditional Democrats want a card-carrying liberal; the new Western Democrats want a centrist tough-guy. Unless they can find a loophole, the Dems may once again cede the vote to the Republicans. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is socially liberal (pro-choice, pro gay-rights), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney helped pass universal health care in his state, and Senator McCain is perceived as the eternal hard-knuckled maverick. Those are three big obstacles to the Democrats’ success in November 2008.
Still, Denver’s role as convention host should work in the Democrats’ favor. “The DNC knows that the future of the party is in the West,” says Stratton. Regardless of which candidate ends up under the balloons and streamers at the Pepsi Center, he (or she) will be speaking on Western issues: immigration, energy, the environment. As Stratton says, “They need to speak our language.”
Here’s a pointer: Practice your vowel pronunciation—and don’t put on the cowboy hat ’til you know how to say “Colorado.”
Patrick Doyle is an assistant editor at 5280.