The U.S. is experiencing a period of rapid demographic change. Nowhere is the speed of change more rapid than in the Mountain West, including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.
As this region has evolved, so have its politics. No longer should it be considered a reliably conservative and Republican area; it is now the new swing region of the country.
In the 2008 presidential election, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico all went for Barack Obama, and these states are all sure to be hotly contested this November. In the near future it seems likely that Arizona will be added to that list—perhaps as soon as this election.
How did this happen? How did a region where none of these states voted Democratic in any presidential election between 1968 and 1988—supposedly imbued with an unshakable libertarian ethos and a reverence for Reagan-style politics—become America’s new swing region?
The answer lies in ongoing processes that have dramatically increased the region's minority population, brought in millions of new residents from outside the region, raised educational levels, replaced older generations with younger ones, and powered the rise of dynamic metropolitan areas where the overwhelming majority of the Mountain West population now lives.
These processes of change are described in detail in my book, America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West, just out from Brookings Press. The first chapter of the book, by myself and demographer William Frey, provides detailed analyses of trends in these states.
In Arizona, we found that the state’s minority share of eligible voters, currently 35 percent, is rising fast (up 4 percentage points over the 2000-2010 period), while its share of relatively conservative working-age, white working-class (non-college-educated) eligible voters, currently 38 percent, is declining equally as fast. The rise of minority voters is sharpest in the Phoenix metro area, where 66 percent of the state’s population resides.
While GOP candidate John McCain did carry Arizona in the 2008 presidential election, his 8-point margin would likely have been less without his favorite-son status, and it pales in comparison to the average 26-point margin Republican presidential candidates enjoyed in the 1968-1988 period.
Compared with 1988, this shift toward the Democrats has been strongest in the fast-growing Phoenix area (a 19-point gain for the Democrats). Across the state, with the exception of its western region, higher population growth rates tend to correlate with increased Democratic voting.
In Colorado, the state’s minority share of eligible voters, currently 20 percent, is rising (up 2 points in the last decade) but the working-age, white college-graduate share, currently 31 percent, is rising just as fast.
The white working-class share of eligible voters, on the other hand, is declining very fast, down 4 points over the decade. The rise of minorities and decline of the white working class is sharpest in the Denver inner suburbs, while the rise of white college graduates is fastest in the city of Denver.
After voting Republican in every presidential election between 1968 and 1988, with an average GOP margin of 18 points, Colorado voted Democratic in 1992 by 4 points and again in 2008 by a margin of 9 points.
The biggest gains since 1988 have come in the Denver inner suburbs (25-point margin gain), Denver city (29 points), and the Boulder metro area (38 points). Almost all Democratic-shifting counties over this period have grown in the last decade, while Republican-shifting counties tend to be a mix of growing and declining counties, especially in the eastern part of the state.
In Nevada, the fastest-growing state in the nation, the state’s minority share of eligible voters, currently 40 percent, is rising very rapidly (up 7 points in the last decade), accompanied by gains for white college graduates (up a point). The white working-class share of eligible voters is declining exceptionally fast, down 8 points over the decade. The rise of minorities and white college graduates and decline of the white working class are sharpest in metro Las Vegas, where almost three-quarters of the state’s population reside.
After voting Republican in every presidential election between 1968 and 1988, with an average GOP margin of 22 points, Nevada voted Democratic narrowly in 1992 by 3 points and in 1996 by 1 point and then more authoritatively in 2008 by 12 points.
The biggest gains since 1988 have come in the very fast-growing Las Vegas metro (35 point margin shift toward the Democrats) and in the Reno metro (also a 35 point shift). The slowest growing part of the state, the rural heartland that lies outside of these two major metropolitan areas, experienced the smallest shift toward the Democrats (15 points).
In New Mexico, we found that the state’s minority share of eligible voters, currently half of voters, is rising fairly rapidly (up 3 points in the last decade), with a just about equivalent decline in the white working-class share of eligible voters. The rise of minorities and decline of the white working class are sharpest in the south and northeast of the state, followed by the Albuquerque metro, where 43 percent of the state’s population reside.
After voting Republican in every election between 1968 and 1988 (though by a comparatively modest average margin of 14 points), New Mexico has voted Democratic in four of the last five Presidential elections. The Democrats’ largest margin, 15 points, came in 2008.
The biggest gains since 1988 have come in the Albuquerque metro, by far the fastest-growing area of the state (26 point margin shift toward the Democrats).
The overall pattern of change is clear. Across the region, minorities and white college graduates are gaining while the white working class is declining rapidly. Typically, these shifts are sharpest in the large, dynamic metropolitan areas of these states.
And it is these areas that are playing the leading role in changing the politics of Mountain West states, turning Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico into accessible states for Democrats and moving Arizona rapidly in the same direction.
Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at both The Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. He is also a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, where he has directed projects on political demography and geography and coauthored a series of papers with William Frey on the shifting demographics of battleground states.