LAS VEGAS—Like the Rocky Mountains themselves, national politics across the Mountain West since the 1980s have been shaped by the collision of tectonic forces.
On one side are demographic trends that favor Democrats—rising levels of racial diversity, education, and urbanization. On the other is the ideological backlash that the party has repeatedly faced across the region, particularly from whites, when it has controlled the White House and implemented a national Democratic agenda.
President Obama and the Republican presidential contenders who gathered here on Tuesday for their most voluble debate yet all have much at stake in how those competing dynamics intersect in 2012. Obama could struggle in the graying blue-collar Midwestern states that once tipped national elections. That will increase the pressure on him to defend his 2008 victories in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, which constitute part of a new arc of youthful and growing swing states emerging across the Sun Belt. Once, the Mountain West was a luxury for Democrats; now, it looks like a necessity. (See "Mapmakers," available only to subscribers.)
Since 1980, the balance of partisan power across the eight Mountain West states (which also include Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming) has fluctuated in a countercyclical pattern. Democrats have generally run better when Republicans hold the presidency, and vice versa.
While Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush occupied the White House, Democrats increased their share of the region’s House and Senate seats and elected brainy moderates such as Sens. Gary Hart and Tim Wirth of Colorado and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, though, Republicans routed Democrats across these open spaces. After Clinton’s two terms, Democrats held only three of the region’s 16 Senate seats, just one-fourth of its House seats, and none of its governorships. In 2000, George W. Bush carried all eight Mountain states and nearly 60 percent of its combined popular vote.
Bush swept the region again in 2004. But Democrats steadily regained other ground, especially as his second-term popularity plummeted. By 2008, Democrats held seven of the region’s 16 Senate seats, a majority of House seats, and five of the eight governorships. While capturing his three Mountain states, Obama attracted a combined 48.5 percent of the region’s votes—far more than Al Gore or John Kerry got. Obama’s strategists talked confidently of contesting Arizona and Montana in 2012.
Fundamental demographic and geographic changes that remain powerful today fueled the Democratic revival under Bush. From 2000 to 2010, minorities provided most of the population growth in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Colorado, Montana, and Utah also added large numbers of college graduates, many of them liberal on social issues. And the region’s population continued shifting from conservative rural areas to urban corridors, where Democrats usually perform better, as Robert Lang, codirector of the Brookings Mountain West center, notes.
But equally important to the Democratic recovery was the shifting political backdrop. Under Clinton, Mountain-state Democrats were inescapably tied to his ambitious national agenda, which inflamed the region’s traditional suspicion of Washington. Under Bush, Democrats could more easily identify themselves as independent-minded moderates by choosing when to support and dissent from the president’s resolutely conservative approach. That helped them advance in burgeoning suburbs such as those ringing Denver.
But Democrats were again routed across the region in 2010 (losing seven House seats and two governorships) as they faced both economic discontent and the widespread sense that Obama was spending and regulating too much. Like the backlash against Clinton, that avalanche raises doubts that Democrats, for all their demographic advantages, can solidify enough support for their national agenda to maintain a lasting edge in these states.
Next year’s election should offer more answers. With the economy still lagging, Obama’s regional standing “has not recovered at all” since 2010, says independent pollster Floyd Ciruli, who is based in Denver. Fewer Democrats talk of flipping Arizona or Montana. And the party faces tough battles in four regional Senate races.
Yet during a public panel that I moderated here sponsored by Project New West, a Democratic research organization, leading party strategists expressed unruffled, almost blithe, optimism about Obama’s ability to hold the three Mountain states he carried in 2008. Partly that was because they expect more young people and minorities to vote in 2012 than did in 2010. But it was primarily because they think Obama will benefit from the contrast with the eventual Republican nominee. The Democratic hope is that those twin dynamics will allow Obama to reassemble the coalition of minorities and suburban whites that reelected Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet last year in Colorado.
As Tuesday’s raucous GOP debate underscored, the Republican nominee will provide Obama plenty of clear contrasts. All of the contenders are betting they can sell a larger retrenchment of government than any GOP nominee has proposed since Reagan (if not Barry Goldwater); they are doubling down on pledges to dismantle environmental regulation and unshackle domestic energy production. The stakes on that wager won’t be greater anywhere than in the increasingly pivotal Mountain West, where acute anxiety about jobs jostles against enduring affection for the land.
This article appears in the October 22, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.