Keeping with a familiar theme from the last few articles I want to focus on two new battleground states. Both formerly GOP bastions they now could hold the key to who gets the better of the electoral college votes nestled in the Mountain West. I speak of the two states of Nevada and Colorado.
Both Colorado and Nevada have a history of backing Republican candidates for president since Nixon. Before 2008 the only Democrat to win the states was Bill Clinton. Clinton carried both Nevada and Colorado in 1992 and carried Nevada narrowly in 96 while narrowly losing Colorado. In 2000 and 2004 both states reverted back to form and voted Republican. But in 2008 due to a massive explosion of population among Hispanics and suburban voters both states went easily for Obama.
When one looks at the challenge the GOP faces retaking these states in November it is hard not to be overwhelmed. Colorado currently has slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats but independents swing the state. And these independent voters tend to be located in Adams County and other suburbs surrounding Denver. Fiscally conservative but socially moderate these voters hold the key to Colorado. In Nevada Bush’s 2004 victory can largely be attributed to his winning 44% of the nationwide Hispanic vote. Bush also ran strongly in the bellweather Washoe County and was competitive in populous Clark County (Las Vegas and suburbs).
Republicans have proven consistently they can win the modern suburban vote in Colorado. In both 2000 and 2004 Bush ran strongly with these voters. Bush also was successful at racking up big margins in GOP counties such as Araphoe, Douglas and Weld. In 2004 Bush actually won Jefferson County, a mix of Denver suburbs and rural expanses. Whoever wins this county usually wins the state. Even in 96 Dole narrowly carried Jefferson County which gave him his victory margin in the state.
Moving to Nevada the Democrat’s base lays in metro and suburban Clark County. Washoe County, up North, which includes Reno, typically goes to whoever wins the state. Case in point. In 2000 and 2004 Bush won Washoe County and the state but lost Clark County. In 2008 McCain lost both Washoe and Clark County and was crushed in the state.
In 2008 suburban voters leaned left. For some of these voters 2010 was a return to form. In 2010 the GOP picked up two House seats in CO and one seat in Nevada around the competitive Las Vegas suburbs. Yet suburban voters in both states rejected the GOP candidates for Senate, Ken Buck in CO and Sharron Angle in NV. Their brand of conservatism did not play well with suburban voters or the statewide electorates. However the GOP did gain seats in the NV legislature and won the governorship with an attractive pro-choice Hispanic candidate. In CO the GOP retook the state House and almost the Senate.
While there was evidence of significant split ticket voting in these states in 2010 one particular group did not. Hispanics. According to exit polls in 2008 in NV these voters made up 15% of the electorate and 76% backed Obama. In CO they made up 13% of the electorate and 61% backed Obama. Nationally Obama took 68% of Hispanic voters. In 2010 the GOP continued to struggle with these voters. In CO’s Senate race they made up 12% of the electorate and gave at least 60% of their vote to Bennett, the Democrat’s Senate candidate. In NV they made up 16% of the electorate and 69% backed Democratic Senator Harry Reid. Slightly less backed Reid’s son for Governor even when the GOP offered a Hispanic candidate for Governor.
The demographic explosion of Hispanics is not limited to just Nevada and Colorado. Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico have all seen an explosion in Hispanic growth according to the 2010 census. However none of these states has been as changed by this demographic shift politically as Colorado and Nevada. New Mexico since the 90’s has actually had a proclivity to lean left. Arizona has continued to vote Republican as more white voters become partisan Republicans. This counters Hispanic voters almost monolithically backing Democrats. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have smaller Hispanic populations, are more rural than Arizona and New Mexico and are more conservative to begin with. It should be noted here Montana has a Democratic Governor and Senator (Governor is term-limited and Senator is up for reelection).
The GOP’s recent increased hardliner stance on illegal immigration has surely irritated Hispanics in the Mountain West. Many hail from Mexico and other Central American countries. A recent Survey USA/Gallup poll finds just how bad the GOP performs among this group nationally. A solid majority of 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Hispanics back Democrats and view the party favorably. The only group of Hispanics that has a favorable view of the GOP and backs them by any significant margin are those who make over $100,000. Unfortunately for the GOP these are an extremely small slice of the Latino electorate.
For 2012 the GOP seems to have conceded the Latino vote. While Romney and his surrogates will fight for a respectable margin it appears a solid majority will back Barack Obama. In Nevada where the Hispanic population is ever-expanding it is more crucial for the GOP in future elections to win these voters. In Colorado, where the battle is likely to remain in the suburbs and Hispanics are a smaller slice of the electorate the GOP might have a little more time to find a message that resonates with this group.
The new Mountain West remains up for grabs. The growth of the Denver and Vegas suburbs combined with Hispanic growth has helped Democrats more than the GOP in recent years. But suburban voters do tend to lean-to the right on fiscal issues, more so than Hispanics. And both states still have significant rural conservative areas. Nevada and Colorado look likely to be competitive in 2012 and beyond.