Look Westward, Candidates

The political dynamics of the fast-changing Mountain West create opportunities in 2012 for both Democrats and Republicans.

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Lately, almost all the action in the 2012 campaign has been in the eastern half of the country. But don't forget the West.

It hasn't gotten a lot of candidate attention in recent weeks: Mitt Romney spent the past week in Florida, New Hampshire, and Iowa, while President Obama recently launched his campaign in Ohio and Virginia -- two states that have also seen Romney visits in recent weeks. Last week, Vice President Biden was dispatched to Ohio as well. Romney launched his first general-election television ad last week in Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia -- three states east of the Mississippi River and one just across it.

But as the campaign continues, you can expect to see both candidates look westward to a crop of states that offer a uniquely fluid political dynamic. There are opportunities for both Obama and Romney in what a new book of scholarly essays calls "America's New Swing Region," and they look far different than the Eastern swing states.

Of the six states studied in the book, two, Utah and Idaho, are safely in the Republican column. Two, Nevada and Colorado, are sure to be closely contested. And two others don't currently look like swing states but could turn that way -- New Mexico, which leans blue, and Arizona, which leans red. Despite the state's rightward turn since it went solidly for hometown boy John McCain in 2008, conservative pundit Michael Barone said at a discussion at the Brookings Institution on Friday that he wouldn't rule out Arizona potentially being in play this cycle -- making it the only state Obama lost in 2008 but hopes to win in 2012.

"Some of us in the conservative press will be writing with great glee if the Obama campaign pulls their ads from Phoenix and Tucson in September," Barone said. "And if they stay in, it's nailbiting time" for Republicans.

Democrats' advantage in the Mountain West is demographic: The populations of these states are increasingly young, urban, and Hispanic. The population share of white college graduates is increasing, while that of the white working class declines. "This is a Democratic demographic wave," said Brookings demographer William Frey. All these growing constituencies favor Obama, but whether they turn out to vote is an open question -- the difference between 2008 and 2010, when Republicans made gains across the West.

But Republicans could benefit from the Western states' continuing economic woes. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 11.7 percent. Unemployment in Arizona (8.2 percent) and Colorado (7.9 percent) is close to the 8.1 percent national average but still in the bottom half of states. Las Vegas and Phoenix were two of the markets hardest hit by the housing crash. Romney's Mormon faith also could give him a boost in Nevada and Arizona, which have sizable Mormon populations, if he inspires an increase in turnout -- though Mormons are reliable voters, and largely Republican, to begin with.

Meanwhile, Western voters' attitudes aren't easily pigeonholed, said Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion scholar at the American Enterprise institute. There's a strong environmental ethos, including a willingness to spend taxpayer dollars to preserve the environment and develop alternative energy sources. At the same time, Westerners strongly favor gun rights, with 64 percent in a 2010 poll saying they believed the right to bear arms to be "under direct threat." And while immigration tends to be a hotter issue in the West, it has dramatically receded as a priority, displaced by economic concerns.

Reshaped by population growth and demographic changes, the West now bears little resemblance to the region that produced Barry Goldwater and served as a Republican stronghold for decades. And it's clear the presidential campaign won't be ignoring the region -- Romney is scheduled to visit Las Vegas next week, and Obama recently made a stop in Reno.

The West, said Ruy Teixeira, editor of the new book, "is one of the areas where American demographics are changing the fastest." And that stands to make the region one of 2012's biggest political question marks.