Kerry blue and snow white: Ski counties vote Democratic

 

The recent Snowdown festival in my town of Durango, Colo., celebrated with silly costumes, a parade, risque humor and even some events centered on snow. People threw themselves down the slopes on everything from skis and snowboards to kayaks, bicycles and even unicycles.

The enthusiastic diversity shows how ski areas have evolved, and it also reminds me of something else: You can tell a lot about how a place will vote by checking to see if it has a ski resort. While George Bush won Colorado, the map of western Colorado counties that John Kerry carried could have come from a ski industry brochure.

Bush won in only one Colorado county that includes a major ski area -- Grand County, home to Winter Park. There are some ski areas in red counties — Powderhorn in Mesa County and Wolf Creek in Hinsdale County are examples — but they’re mostly smaller and not destination resorts.

What’s more, the results were often lopsided. In La Plata County, home to Durango Mountain Resort, John Kerry got 53 percent of the vote, the same as in Eagle County, home to Vail and Beaver Creek. In Routt County, base for Steamboat, he got 54 percent. He won Summit County, chock full of resorts such as Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin, by 59 percent. In Pitkin County, where there’s Aspen and three other ski areas, 68 percent of the voters chose Kerry. And in San Miguel County, home of Telluride’s ski resort, he got 72 percent.

The pattern also seems to hold in other states. Bush easily carried Vice President Dick Cheney’s home state of Wyoming, winning all but one county — the one that includes Jackson Hole and its ski area.

The GOP ticket won New Mexico, too. But John Kerry got 74 percent of the vote in Taos County, another ski area. Idaho’s four electoral votes also went to Bush. Kerry won only Blaine County, home of Sun Valley.

Kerry won California overall, but that state’s sparsely populated inland counties went mostly for Bush. Still, Kerry carried the ski resort counties of Mono and Alpine.

In Utah, the Democrats didn’t win a single county. But at 45 percent, Kerry came closest in Summit County, base for Park City and two other ski areas.

It seems that people living in counties with ski areas are more likely than their neighbors to vote Democratic. The problem is that the correlation is easier to demonstrate than to explain. For that I contacted some people who know more than I do about politics and ski towns.

Fred Brown, a longtime observer of Colorado politics and columnist for The Denver Post, said he first noticed the connection in 1992, when Bill Clinton carried Colorado. He dismissed a "limousine liberal" hypothesis, pointing out that "there are a lot of Hollywood liberals who hang out in Aspen, but they don’t vote there."

Former Colorado Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler, who has campaigned statewide several times, said, "There are big differences in points of view between ski counties and other rural areas." In particular, she cited concerns about social issues and the environment.

Writer Hal Clifford also sees environmental issues as important. He said, "What matters …is that you are there for the mountains and the love of the place." Clifford is the author of Downhill Slide, a must-read book for anyone interested in ski towns or the ski industry.

"Ski towns are also party towns," Clifford said. "And they always have been." He suggests that heritage has fostered a libertarian streak that’s at odds with the Bush administration’s emphasis on morality: "So, who would vote for people who condemn your lifestyle?"

Schoettler and Clifford both point out that ski county populations are self-selected samples. Clifford said, "I think these places draw like-minded people, even in the second-homeowner set. Sure, Republicans go to Vail and Aspen and Telluride to ski and drink and eat, and they go home and vote Republican. But many of those people who stay probably weren’t Republicans to begin with."

"Ski towns," Clifford said, "are built by idealists. … If you have the money, ski towns are the place to go to reinvent yourself, that most American of journeys."

If the area’s politics get reinvented in the process, I suppose that’s pretty American as well.

Bill Roberts is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the editorial page editor of the Durango Herald in western Colorado.