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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Swing Voters and Ticket-Splitters in the Mountain West

NOTE: This is the sixth item in The Democratic Strategist’s Roundtable Discussion on swing and base voter strategies. Focusing on the Mountain West as a potential “swing region,” it’s by Joan McCarter, who is a Fellow/Contributing Editor at Daily Kos, where she posts as McJoan.
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Ed Kilgore began this roundtable discussion with two questions: are swing voters worth the trouble? Can Democrats win with base mobilization alone?
From a regional perspective, and specifically the region that currently holds the hopes of so many Democrats—the Mountain West—there’s little choice for Democrats but to find a way to appeal to swing voters. In the Mountain West region, comprised of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, Republicans hold about a 12 point registration advantage. The reality is that a Democrat doesn’t win in many parts of the region unless they can appeal to the always elusive independent or unaffiliated voter, not to mention some Republicans.
This isn’t a new phenomenon for Democrats in the West—it’s why you rarely find a Western Dem who is an enthusiastic supporter of gun control, for example. Finding avenues of nonpartisan, and even anti-partisan, appeal have been critical to the survival of the Western Democrat in the lean years since Ronald Reagan helped solidify the region as solidly red, as has keeping the national party at arm’s length. The key for the Democratic Party in shaping a strategy for the 2008 elections will be allowing Democrats running in the region to run with a high degree of independence from the national party’s message and structure. The key for Democrats running in the West will be to find those issues that can be branded as Democratic and that uphold our progressive values.
Note: this discussion has been well informed by a Democracy Corps survey and memo from April, 2007.
(1) Who are the swing and base voters?
In the Mountain West, swing voters can be just about any voter. While in each of the states the Republicans have a distinct registration advantage, that imbalance obviously doesn’t play out state-wide or in every race. Part of this is due to the inheritance of Western voters of the idea of the Western character. Paramount to that ideal is independence, an ideal that plays out politically to an extent in voting behavior. Historically, party structures in the Mountain West have been relatively weak; politicians are more likely to run as individuals first and members of a party second and voters pride themselves on voting for the individual, not the party. There’s a marked anti-partisan attitude among traditional Western voters.
Getting an empirical handle on the exact voter breakdown in some of these states to determine base vs. swing percentages is a challenge. If you take the last two presidential elections as establishing the base Democratic vote, the range is from 26 percent in Utah to 48.5 percent in New Mexico. It’s not a perfect measure for the voting demographics, but gives an essential baseline, particularly in states like Idaho and Utah where it takes a real yellow dog to vote for the Democratic nominee.
It’s important to note that, in the context of this region, anti-partisan is not the equivalent of bipartisan. Western voters are highly pragmatic, looking for problem solvers first, and ideological debate is of less interest than action on many issues. While they would like the parties to work together, it’s more important that things get done, even if that takes a bulldozer of a politician, like Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was in the 2007 legislative session, to do it. Because the independently minded voter places a higher value on action than on compromise, contrast is more important than comity in appealing to them. The individual candidate is also more important than the party he or she represents for many Western voters.
Thus, the prototypical swing voters in the Mountain West are better defined as ticket-splitters than as “swingers.” They might be perfectly willing to send the Democrat that they know and trust back to the House of Representatives in DC, but if a fellow Democrat is running for another House or Senate seat, they’ll probably look to the Republican in the race, just to make sure their own sense of checks and balances is maintained. As a result, their ticket gets split.


Consider the case of Wyoming, which has had a Democratic governor for 24 of the last 32 years—three decades that have been unkind to Democrats there. They haven’t sent a Democrat to Congress since 1976. When I interviewed former Gov. Mike Sullivan recently, I asked him about that, and what was at work in the state to create that dynamic.

There is a kind of basic feeling that checks and balances are good, and recognition that we are very Republican. The legislature is very Republican, and maybe it doesn’t do harm to have a Democratic governor sort of sitting on them…. It’s okay because you’re here, and you’re close enough to be watched. But the electorate isn’t going to send you somewhere else. D.C. is too far off and they’re not sure they can watch you at that distance, and they know that if you get back there you’re going to be captured by those pinko communists.
I ran for Senate in ’94, and it was a very interesting experience. I wasn’t all that excited about going to Washington but I was convinced that it was the right thing to do. I think I ended up with a 70 percent approval rating when I left [the governor’s] office and I got soundly beaten. People kept coming up to me and saying “Governor, we love you, but you know, you go back there and you’re going to have to vote with the party and that party back there doesn’t represent our values.” And there was no way of convincing the majority of the people that it could be otherwise.

Those voters, who reelected Mike Sullivan easily in 1990, with 65 percent of the vote, sent him to the curb just four years later, when he lost by 20 points to Craig Thomas. Wyoming is an extreme example for the region, but the dynamics at play for the Western voters are probably just amplified in this small population state.
So a large portion of the region’s electorate is likely at some point in their voting career to split their ticket. What Democrats need to determine is how, precisely, to capture some of those ticket-splitters
(2) What is their relative value?
The relative value of these ticket-splitters in the West is quite high, perhaps the highest in any region of the country. It’s clear in every state, at least at the local and state level, they can swing elections. In the larger population states in the southern part of the region—Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado–and potentially Montana, they have the potential to swing a presidential election. The question for Democrats running down-ballot in these states is the degree to which they associate with the top of the ticket candidate, and the national platform.
The other states of the region, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, are unlikely to vote Democratic at the presidential level in the near term. But appealing to the ticket-splitters in these states is critical for any Democrat to get elected beyond highly localized district races. Those politicians who have been most effective in the past two decades in these states have been governors, Cecil Andrus in Idaho, and Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming. These are states particularly hostile to Washington, DC politicians, particularly distrustful towards an external message and what they consider outside influence.
(3) What are the opportunity costs involved in reaching beyond the base to swing voters?
The risk, of course, for Democrats in the region is the same as in any area—diluting the Democratic brand further and not providing the strong contrast to the other party that any healthy political system requires. This risk is greater where the climb for Democrats is even more uphill—the northern group of states, and where arguably the stakes are highest.
There is also the risk of misreading the basic anti-partisan orientation of these voters as a longing for bipartisanship. This can result in short-lived and uneasy compromises that erode the Democratic brand. Again, these voters are more swayed by results than by process. There are battles that can be won, even in the most unlikely of places, by taking strong, principled, progressive stands.
Consider Jon Tester’s refusal in the 2006 Senate campaign in Montana to buy into the post-9/11 “fear” narrative. When Conrad Burns tried to paint him as weak on national security because Tester would allow the PATRIOT Act to be weakened, Tester shot back “I don’t want to weaken the Patriot Act–I want to repeal it. What it does, it takes away your freedom … and when you take away our freedoms, the terrorists have won.” That statement reverberated through the remainder of the campaign, bringing many libertarian- leaning Republican and independent voters to take a second look at the Montanan.
To take another example, consider Cecil Andrus’s 1990 veto of an abortion bill that would have given Idaho the most restrictive abortion law of any state at the time. The bill easily passed through the legislature, and Idaho’s active right-to-life and conservative religious communities were strongly supportive. Despite the potential threat to his reelection that year, Andrus vetoed the bill on the grounds that it was unduly punitive to women. He added the politically smart objection that the bill was sponsored by national right-to-life groups who were trying to use Idaho as their vehicle to further their national agenda. He cruised to reelection that year, losing just one county.
(4) What’s the best long-range strategy for building an enduring Democratic majority?
Democrats in the West have the greatest opportunity before them to make significant gains in the solidly red states, and to increase their advantage in the purple states of the region by seizing the key issue for Westerners, by emphasizing the cluster of issues that can be summed up by the phrase “quality of life.” That includes both an economic and an environmental message, often intertwined. Access to public lands, water and air pollution, unfettered growth, drought, climate change—all of these issues tie into the critical land-based economy of the West, and all appeal to both native Westerners and new immigrants to the region who live there for the quality of life.
On the economic side of the equation, a strong populist message can resonate. Wages in many states in the region are lower than national averages. While some areas are booming economically, particularly some parts of the southern tier (e.g., Colorado, Arizona) and around cities like Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, much of the region has sluggish economic growth. Lack of health insurance is a major concern. As the Democracy Corps survey found, nearly a quarter (23 percent) of voters here went without health insurance in the last five years or currently lack insurance. This is a problem for all age groups: 47 percent of young people are without coverage, as are 24 percent of those aged 50-64.
Tied into the region’s economy is the region’s environment. The economy throughout the region is still largely driven by the land—by the resources it holds and the opportunities it provides. In those communities experiencing the healthiest economic growth, not coincidentally those communities closest to public lands, according to a recent Sierra Club report, there is increased employment, higher earnings and income, lower poverty, and improvements in local educational attainment and health. Property values also increase the closer they are to protected public lands, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study included in the report.
The new reality for the West is that protected and well-managed public lands are worth more to many western communities than the oil, gas, or timber than you can pull out of them. What’s more, greater numbers of Westerners earn their living off of those well-managed and protected lands, along with enjoying them during their leisure time. Those life-style considerations have made the region more attractive to the high tech industry, providing jobs and creating a workforce that is concerned about maintaining the air, water, and land that makes where they live so special.
These concerns are most dramatically demonstrated by a recent event. On January 22, 2007, 10,000 Idahoans turned out to hear Vice President Al Gore give his talk and slide show on global warming. Originally scheduled for a 1,000 seat venue, tickets for the speech disappeared in 10 minutes. The speech was then moved to the Boise State University basketball stadium, where 10,000 tickets sold out in less than five hours (more rapidly than tickets for Elton John, as the evening’s emcee and organizer Bethine Church was quick to point out). Local news showed lines of a couple of hundred people showing up hours before the event, hoping for a chance at a ticket.
The turnout for Gore was remarkable in this state where he garnered just under 28 percent of the vote in his 2000 bid for president. Their intense interest in the message was as surprising as their openness to the messenger. This deeply conservative state has embraced anti-government, anti-regulation, pro-growth, and pro-industry stances in every confrontation over environmental and conservation issues during the past five decades. If Idaho is ripe to hear an alternative message on these issues, they will play for Democrats throughout the region.
On issues that are particularly dicey for Democrats in the West, such as immigration and gun control, it’s important to adopt an approach based on the kind of pragmatism that Western voters value above all else.
As resource development, particularly oil and gas drilling, expands on public lands that were once prime hunting and fishing ground, the traditionally conservative “hook and bullet crowd” is increasingly allying with conservation organizations to try to preserve open spaces. This is a critical and long term issue for Democrats to seize, and an issue that can erode some of the most extreme gun rights sentiment.
In the short term, immigration is a key issue, rated as critically important for voters in the West. But again, they have a more pragmatic and nuanced view of the debate than is generally suggested in the traditional media narrative. Westerners recognize that some of the more stringent measures suggested by Republicans—a border fence, massive deportations—are just impracticable and don’t provide long term solutions. But Westerners also recognize the value that immigration brings. Here is where Democrats can again capitalize on coalition building—between immigrant communities and the economic sectors that depend upon them. Needless to say, solidifying the Hispanic vote in the region is going to be critical to growing the Democratic base.
These are the kinds of coalitions that Democrats can build without sacrificing more progressive values, as long as they remain solutions-based. Western voters have shown themselves to be nothing but flexible in choosing their leaders, provided those would-be leaders give them a compelling reason for voting for them. It’s on these kinds of core issues—protecting the land, expanded economic opportunities, curbing out of control growth, responding to climate change—that Democrats can find key inroads.
The next generation of Western Democrats should learn from the great tradition of principled and progressive Western Democrats—Frank Church, Cecil Andrus, Mike Mansfield, Mo Udall, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart. These leaders were able to be unapologetic Democrats, to take controversial stands on critical issues, and to stand up for the ultimate progressive value of the common good.

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