The Politically 'Purple' Southwest and the Presidential Election

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).