Brimming with individualistic, self-reliant, libertarian-leaning voters, the Rocky Mountain West will play a pivotal role in a year when independent voters are expected to make or break John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s presidential bids.
Voters here in recent elections have backed individual candidates regardless of political affiliation and have responded to messages emphasizing economic populism, fiscal discipline and the balance between individual rights and governmental protections.
Already, McCain is emphasizing his 22 years as a Western senator sensitive to the region’s issues and personality, and touting his record of standing up to both political parties. Obama is portraying himself as a reformer, someone who won’t engage in Washington-style politics and is committed to taking the country in a better direction.
While voters have elected Democrats for state and federal offices in these states, those candidates have been moderates or conservatives, many of them more comfortable in cowboy boots and a bolo tie than a Washington, D.C.-style suit.
With the exception of former President Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 (largely due to the impact of third-party candidate Ross Perot) and reelection four years later, a Democratic candidate has won only one state in the eight-state region since Lyndon Johnson nearly swept it in 1964.
“The question is whether the national Democrats are finally in a position to appeal to Western voters,” said Dan Kemmis, former speaker and minority leader of the Montana House of Representatives and director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. “Can they address and be sensitive to Western issues?”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If just Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico had cast their electoral votes for John F. Kerry in 2004, he’d be president now.
Here’s the first half of an in-depth look at four states that could prove pivotal in determining our next president. Nevada and Montana are below, and tomorrow will bring a closer look at Colorado and New Mexico.
The political playbook for winning Nevada seems simple on its face.
Democrat Barack Obama must cash in on the huge increase in registered Democratic voters and win big in population-rich Clark County, home to Las Vegas.
Republican John McCain needs to work the middle, portraying himself as a centrist to stay close to Obama in Clark County and then seal the base in the rural areas of the state, which tend to vote Republican.
But Nevada, a state that has voted for a GOP president in every election but two in the past four decades, is filled with political obstacles and nuances blocking the candidates' run toward the end zone.
To begin with, neither was the first choice of his party in the presidential caucuses, and both are battling for Latino voters.
McCain has issues with his base, while Obama has stumbling blocks with independents.
"McCain needs to appeal to more conservative rural voters and he faces problems with his stance on immigration and tax cuts," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada-Reno. "Obama's dilemma is that he has to articulate his message of change without being a liberal with big-government policies."
A surge in Latino and suburban voters, along with a heightened labor presence, has already contributed to the Silver State's status as a swing state in the past. But this year, registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 50,000 — the biggest gap in at least 18 years. Much of the population boom and jump in Democratic voters is in Clark Couty, where 65 percent of the state's voters live.
Though the numbers benefit Obama, the area is notorious for low turnout, making voter mobilization crucial. His message of change may help him, however, considering the state has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, and high gas prices have had an impact on tourism and recreation, the state's No. 1 industry.
But to help get out the vote, labor probably needs to turn out in force, which is not necessarily guaranteed.
During the caucuses, labor groups including the powerful 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union officially backed Obama. But the culinary union endorsed Obama only 10 days before the Democratic caucus and failed to execute significant get-out-the-vote efforts. Additionally, many of its members ended up backing Hillary Rodham Clinton.
GOP strategist Ryan Erwin, who was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential bid in Nevada, said if McCain, an Arizona senator, can walk and talk like a Westerner, he should prevail.
"This is an anti-tax, small-government, libertarian, us-against-the-world state," he said. "If McCain gives voters straight talk, he will win."
Erwin added that McCain needs to walk a tightrope on immigration to appeal to Latino voters, many of whom support a more moderate stance, and white, conservative voters who dislike amnesty. And in a state without an income tax and few government services, he must define Obama as a "tax-and-spend" Democrat.
Like Obama, he also needs ideas for economic opportunities, not always an easy task considering that nearly 90 percent of the state is owned or controlled by the federal government.
"He should have plans that include public-private partnerships to look at renewable energy, warehousing, manufacturing and transportation," Erwin said.
Critical to McCain's success in the state is the rural area.
In 2004, Democrat John Kerry won Clark County by about 6 percentage points, or a little more than 26,000 votes, after what was considered an unprecedented voter mobilization effort. But all of Nevada's other counties backed Bush, giving the incumbent president a narrow win.
The five counties in the greater Reno area are critical for McCain. Though they have reliably voted Republican, Washoe County, home to Reno, is showing signs of erosion. In 2004, Bush's margin of victory there was roughly half of what it was four years earlier. And a recent poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that McCain leads Obama in Washoe by only 3 percentage points.
Obama won that part of the state in the caucuses, but voter registration numbers greatly favor Republicans.
"It's still a mystery on the best way for a Democrat to appeal to rural Nevada," said Dan Hart, a Las Vegas-based Democratic consultant. "But unemployment is high and the state is in the middle of a huge budget crisis. Obama needs to pay attention to economic issues."
He also needs to try to exploit McCain's initial failure to support Bush's tax cuts, as well as his support of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste depository.
"That's almost a litmus test here," Hart said.
In Montana, where "opening day" refers to the beginning of hunting season rather than baseball, a candidate's political survival usually hinges on one issue: guns.
A candidate's position on gun rights is the Montana entrance exam. Answer correctly and you can move on to discuss other issues. Give the wrong answer and most voters don't want to hear what else you have to say.
"Anyone running for office here must be really negative on gun control and very supportive on gun rights," said Jim Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana. "It's one of those 'gotcha' questions."
Those are the political waters John McCain and Barack Obama must navigate if they want to win votes in Big Sky Country. McCain, an Arizona senaor, is considered more gun-friendly than Obama, although the National Rifle Association has given him a C rating. Obama has received an F rating from the NRA, and although he has spoken about "common-sense" gun control, many voters may be opposed to any perceived limits on their Second Amendment rights.
"People in Montana don't want restrictions on their guns. That issue alone is a major problem for Obama here," said Erik Iverson, head of the Montana GOP.
Although Montana only has three electoral votes, the close margins in the past two presidential elections made one point clear: Every electoral vote counts.
Outsiders often consider Montana nearly blood-red in its political allegiances, but in-state political analysts say the state has always gone through cycles. Yet, voters have backed Republican candidates in all but one of the past 10 presidential elections.
Currently, the rotation is blue.
In the past four years, the state has elected Democrats for governor and U.S. senator and put Democrats in control of both chambers of the legislature. That contributes to the state's potential battleground status. But there have also been changes over the years: More people have moved into smaller cities, conservationists appear to have more clout and the state is in the midst of a restoration economy, cleaning up polluted rivers, old mines, forests and brownfields.
The state is also involved in fostering energy alternatives such as wind power and coal gasification.
"That's especially where Obama has appeal. He understands this kind of economy," said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. "That, and people are fed up with Republican leadership."
Schweitzer and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won their seats with a message of economic populism and by portraying themselves as Davids battling Washington and corporate Goliaths. Obama has similar messages in his campaign, and he can tap into his grass-roots organization left over from the caucuses.
But Obama is a different type of candidate from libertarian-sounding Tester and Schweitzer. In Montana, Democrats usually walk, talk and act like Republicans.
Obama also may be haunted by a comment that rural voters "cling to guns and religion," which he made leading up to the Pennsylvania primary.
However, even Iverson doesn't think the state is a lock for the GOP. McCain is strong, he said, on issues like energy and national security. But he said voters notice he doesn't have an office or any real presence in the state.
"He needs to realize he could lose the state if he ignores it," he said.
Karen E. Crummy is a political writer for The Denver Post. Her work can be found at http://politicswest.com. Politico and the Denver Post are sharing content for the 2008 election cycle and during the Democratic National Convention.