The start of the presidential campaign has focused the nation’s political attention on Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But to understand what is likely to happen in November, it would be more useful to take a look at what’s happening in America’s Southwest.
Given the current balance between reliably northern and west coast Democratic states — like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California — versus a largely Republican Farm Belt and South, the Southwestern states (Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Nevada, and New Mexico) as well as Florida hold the balance of power in the Electoral College.
The rapid growth of the Southwest makes these places ever more important in presidential politics. Most observers still think back to the days when these places were relatively unpopulated. In fact, though, for the 2012 election, Colorado (9), Nevada (6), and New Mexico (5) combined have more electoral votes than Ohio’s 18. Adding Arizona’s 11 gives the Southwest two more electoral votes than Florida’s 29. Texas has been a one-party state for most of the last 100 years: for the Democrats until Reagan’s election in 1980; after that, for the Republicans. But with 38 electoral votes — or 14% of the 270 needed for victory — the Lone Star State is simply too big to ignore.
In recent decades, the region’s historic conservatism has been tempered by the rise of Hispanic and Native American voters, and the migration of socially liberal Baby Boomers and Generation X voters who work in the high tech industries, plus retirees from Northern liberal states. The end result is that the Southwest is now a “Purple” region, somewhere between Republican Red and Democratic Blue.
Barack Obama carried all of the Southwest states in 2008 except for Texas and McCain’s home state of Arizona. But there is a sense of disappointment with President Obama, not personal dislike so much as frustration that he has not turned the economy around. He maintains support among the Southwest’s poor minorities, but the vast middle class seems open to “a change.” There is a huge opening for the Republicans in every Southwestern state.
In the last 100 years, New Mexico has voted for the winner in 23 of 25 presidential elections, a record matched by only Ohio and Missouri. And whoever carried a majority of Southwestern electoral votes was the winner of over 80% of presidential elections since 1912 when Arizona and New Mexico were admitted to the union. (The exceptions were the three-way races of 1968, 1992 & 1996 — plus 2008).
Why are the Southwestern states so closely balanced? The answer is they are now a reflection of the new twenty-first century America: suburban, more Hispanic, more Asian, more Native American, more oriented toward high tech industry, etc.
Yet this area now faces severe and so far unrelenting economic problems. During my recent trip I saw far more closed businesses and homeless people than during my last visit five years ago. Obama is facing real troubles in the Southwest, where his re-election bid is in severe jeopardy.
The Southwest could also play a key role in the furious contests for control of the House and Senate. Texas had the most Congressional gains in re-apportionment (4 House seats). Given the state’s recent Republican tilt, most expected more GOP gains. But Texas Republicans tried to protect every GOP incumbent elected in their 2010 sweep and this has led to complications: a federal court has taken control of the Texas remap due to discrimination against Hispanics (a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act). Since Texas now has a majority of minorities — 38% Hispanic, 12% black, 5% Asian/Other — drawing districts based on sheer population will result in Democratic gains. If the House vote is close, Texas alone could make the difference.
If Texas Republicans over-reached in the House races, they are playing a much smarter game in the Senate as they have endorsed State Solicitor General Ted Cruz to succeed Kay Hutchison. Cruz, a conservative Cuban-American with ample Tea Party support, will face off against likely weak Democratic opposition as a solid favorite. With his ethnicity and conservative movement support, Cruz could become a national GOP star like Florida’s Marco Rubio.
Republicans currently have 47 seats in the U.S. Senate, so they need a net gain of four to guarantee control. Open Democratic seats in normally “Red” North Dakota and Nebraska should go Republican this fall. Republicans also have an even shot at open Democratic seats in Virginia and Wisconsin. Democratic incumbents in Montana, Ohio, Missouri, and (of course) Florida face very tough challenges. If the Senate races in the rest of the nation break evenly, the new Senate majority could come down to the Southwest where Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona all have open races that will be fiercely contested.
Barring an unexpected event that causes the national electorate to surge toward one party or the other, we’re probably looking at another tight “Red-Blue” campaign like 2000 and 2004. If so, watch the Southwestern states: history shows they are over 80% likely to go with the winner.