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for people who care about the West

Wyoming’s day in the spin

 

Talk about surprising: The Democratic presidential candidates actually paid some attention to Wyoming. With only 522,830 residents, according to last summer's Census Bureau estimate, Wyoming has the smallest population of all 50 states. Furthermore, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the Equality State in 44 years, not since the Lyndon B. Johnson landslide of 1964, when Johnson got 61 percent of the popular vote nationally, but only 57 percent of Wyoming's.

Even so, both Democratic candidates worked the state before its March 8 caucuses. Sen. Barack Obama spoke in Casper and Laramie. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife in Riverton, Laramie, and Rock Springs. Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke in Cheyenne, and their daughter, Chelsea, went to Casper.

Wyoming hasn't seen this sort of campaigning since 1948, the last election that routinely involved train travel. Harry Truman, crossing the state on the Union Pacific's transcontinental line, spoke in Cheyenne, Laramie and Rawlins on June 6, 1948, while on his way to California - and Truman did carry Wyoming that year, the next-to-last time a Democrat managed that feat. It should be noted, though, that by the twisted arithmetic of the Electoral College, Wyoming has the most powerful voters in America. Each state gets as many electors as it has representatives (based on population) and senators (each state gets two).

So Wyoming gets three electoral votes, which means that each vote represents 174,277 residents. California gets 55 electoral votes - but each vote there represents 664,603 Californians. Each of the Lone Star State's 34 electoral votes represents 703,370 Texans. Thus, one Wyoming voter is worth 3.81 California voters or 4.03 Texas voters. These calculations could inspire all sorts of musings about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in arranging such a system, but we need to get back to the 2008 Democratic campaign.

At issue in Wyoming were only 12 of the 4,408 delegates to the national convention. Wyoming has a low population, and states also get bonus delegates by voting for Democrats - not a Wyoming trait.

The race between Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton is tight. But any reasonable way you cut it, the best either candidate could have done would be an 8-4 edge over the other. In reality, then, it was at most a four-vote pickup that was at stake. Was that really enough for Wyoming to merit all that attention, when campaign resources could have been used elsewhere?

Perhaps not in a mathematical sense, but Wyoming did matter for the 2008 campaign narrative. Obama wins the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. Clinton stages a comeback in New Hampshire on Jan. 8. Obama rules at the Feb. 5 primaries and caucuses. Clinton comes back on March 4 with victories in Rhode Island, Ohio and Texas - except that Obama will likely emerge with 98 Texas delegates to Clinton's 95.

Waiting for all the Texas results to be in would disturb the national back-and-forth narrative, though, so as March 8 dawned in Wyoming, both candidates needed to prove something. Clinton does pretty well in primaries, but needed to show she could win in a caucus state, even if it was in one of those places that her staffers have called "insignificant." Obama needed to put a victory on the board in order to reverse Clinton's "momentum."

Obama won 61 percent of the caucus votes, which translated into 7 Wyoming delegates to Clinton's 5. He's done pretty well among Democrats in the Mountain West, winning Idaho, Utah and Colorado before Wyoming. And in Nevada, like Texas, Obama got more delegates even though Clinton won the popular vote.

Naturally, the Clinton campaign put a spin on the Wyoming results, with her campaign manager, Maggie Williams, explaining that even though her candidate got only 39 percent of the vote, "We are thrilled with this near-split in delegates."

Wyoming had its unexpected moment of national fame, and now the campaigns have moved on.

As they build up to the next big contest, the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, which is presumably in a significant state instead of one of ours, we'll doubtless hear more from the Clinton campaign. Considering what's come out to date, the sound bites may well go along these lines:

  • "America, we tried this once before. An Illinois lawyer ran for president. Sure, he was eloquent, but he had only one term of experience in Washington to go with his few years in the state Legislature. And after he was elected, a deadly and divisive civil war broke out in our country. Let's not let allow that to happen again."

  • "As far as I know, Sen. Obama was born on Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu. But we need to be sure about this, because Hawaii did not become a state until Aug. 21, 1959 - less than two years earlier. To the best of my knowledge, he was born in the United States. But we do need to be sure about this."

  • "Sen. Obama has virtually no experience in the private sector, the most vital part of the American economy. Wouldn't it make more sense to vote for someone who has been a bank attorney, a successful commodities trader and a corporate director of the largest retail company in the world, Wal-Mart - where people have been working for change for years?"

  • "There are credible reports that thousands of Republicans in Ohio and Texas, as advised by a prominent radio talk-show host, crossed over to vote for Sen. Clinton in those states' primaries. In a general election, it's important to have a candidate who has demonstrated an ability to attract votes from Republicans and independents."

  • "It's 3 a.m. The red telephone rings in the White House. It's Bill Clinton. There was a misunderstanding when the vice squad raided the Emperor's Club, and he needs someone to come down to the precinct and bail him out. Who do you think should take the call?"

 

Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colo., where he publishes Colorado Central Magazine and is a regular op-ed columnist for the Denver Post.