The political media has been consumed with former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign kickoff, but something else has been going on in presidential politics largely unnoticed.
The Mountain West, long a second (or third) thought to the favorite-son, vote-rich Rust Belt states, is stepping, however lightly, into the limelight. Several Mountain West Democrats have jumped into the presidential race (from Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet) or are readying themselves to do so (Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, and perhaps others). The Democratic Party has hopes that Arizona, which as John McCain used to observe is about the only state where mothers cannot in good faith tell their kids they can grow up to be president, will move into the Democratic column next year.
Not ceding any ground, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has decreed that a trio of Mountain West blue states — Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — are “flippable” in 2020.
It’s happy news for the region, which has become tired of being an afterthought for presidential campaigns thanks to its lower population levels and voters who seem to have a natural aversion to the way the rest of the country thinks. But it’s not clear that either party is naturally well-placed to appeal to voters in the area, even if it’s nice that they purport to care.
In its current Trumpy iteration, the Republican Party is strongly geared toward the interests of the stereotypical Rust Belt swing voter: anti-free trade, very focused on boosting the manufacturing sector at any cost, skeptical of immigration (particularly Hispanic immigration) and spending-happy. It is also concerned about the social safety net most likely because of the number of older voters who vote for the party as well as because of the slow disintegration, visible from the 1980s and compounded by the housing bubble burst in the 2000s, of in-person, human social networks that used to be more robust across the region. Those hallmarks of Trumpism make the reelection campaign’s Mountain West claims seem rather delusional.
Still, it’s hardly different for Democrats. Overall, the party is strongly geared toward the interests of stereotypical coastal city dwellers: prioritizing environmental concerns, social justice matters and “wokeness,” and policies aimed at helping people cope with the challenges of booming, pricey-to-live-in cities where “new economy” industries dominate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is the biggest rock star in the party; Elizabeth Warren is driving a lot of the 2020 field on policy. To the extent Democrats show any interest in moving in a less “coastal elite” direction, their party is also focused on those Rust Belt voters, hence the appeal of Biden (all Pennsylvania, all the time) or, for some, Bernie Sanders.
Who speaks for voters living in and around the Rockies — or those of us who think like them?
We’re the ones who didn’t get Trump’s State of the Union line about fences and love (maybe we all grew up hearing our parents or grandparents singing the old cowboy song “Don’t Fence Me In” too much). Even if we’re liberal, we tend to be less averse to gun rights than the big stars of the Democratic Party. We’re generally not brash like Trump and Ocasio-Cortez, and more quiet-spoken (consider the stereotype of the soft-spoken cowboy). We tend to be more concerned about civil liberties and freedoms and skeptical of government, even if we know it needs to exist and do things. We or our families are people who ditched the rest of the country for the West, so we tend to be a little more sympathetic to immigrants (and hey, a lot of us are immigrants or descended from recent immigrants).
We also tend to be a little disdainful of other parts of America with their pet regional concerns that didn’t and don’t translate perfectly for us. We ourselves are, or are often descended from, pioneers. So we don’t like restrictions on trade or mobility and are simultaneously concerned about preservation of wilderness and the ability to use land to generate income. We are a little more libertarianish than voters in the rest of the country. Everyone who has worked in the region knows this — even if it’s hard to demonstrate with raw data. The fact is, we’re going to be hard to firmly sell on either party as currently constructed. And substantive change isn’t coming quite yet, even if hints of it are on display.
It won’t matter too much next year; the 2020 census needs to happen before Electoral College votes shift and the Mountain West gain some political dominance. However, that move is coming — and that’s probably the real reason behind the parties’ showing more interest in the area in their different ways, one candidate-driven, one (most likely) purely rhetorical.
According to Census Bureau data from July 2017 to July 2018, many of the fastest-growing United States counties are in Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Among those losing population are in Appalachia, the Rust Belt region as well as some Mississippi River-bordering and Great Plains areas.
Per Pew Trusts, of the 10 states gaining population the fastest, five are in the Mountain West. The fastest-growing state is Utah, but also among the top 10 are Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and Arizona. West Virginia and Illinois are losing population, while other Rust Belt and Northeastern states are growing comparatively slowly. Among the 10 states with the most declining, or slowest-growing, populations are Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut as well as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even a recent United Van Lines survey shows the same general trend.
The Mountain West — marked by its different philosophical outlook — seems to be a hot ticket. This presidential election will give the parties a chance to figure out how to appeal to the area’s voters instead of just being the less bad option for them in that particular cycle. When the Trump campaign talks about flipping Mountain West states, it’s predicated on the notion that a Democrat as unsalable as Sanders gets the nod; it’s not because Trump is morphing into a figure somewhere further along the Bill Richardson-Jon Huntsman-Ken Buck spectrum.3 comments on this story
If Trump gets reelected in 2020, 2024 could get very interesting, though, should a figure like Kyrsten Sinema, a first-term Democratic senator from Arizona, perform well in office and decide to step up. Her former communications director just got hired by Bullock to work Iowa, so she’ll have experienced talent to tap should she so desire.
Maybe in the next campaign, McCain’s old Arizona joke will finally be put to bed by Sinema, who switched a red state to blue in a year when most Democrats in tight Senate races tanked. The Mountain West is growing, and American politics is changing.