In presidential politics, the West has a bad hand

  • West's bad hand of cards (cartoon)

    Mike Osbun
 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Life, as someone once pointed out, is unfair.

Someone, no doubt, pointed it out millennia ago, but the observation is generally attributed to John F. Kennedy, among whose distinctions was winning the closest presidential election in living memory.

A mere 118,570 more Americans voted for Kennedy than for Richard M. Nixon 40 years ago. But in the votes that count, it wasn't that close; Kennedy had a comfortable 303-to-219 Electoral College majority, and he did it with a mere seven votes from the inland West - four from New Mexico and three from Nevada. JFK would have won without a single electoral vote from the Rocky Mountain states and Hawaii.

It's been done since. Except for Texas and Utah, Jimmy Carter didn't win an electoral vote in the West. From the rest of the country he got 301, substantially more than the 267 he needed.

In other words, nyaahh, nyaahh to you guys in the Rocky Mountain West. In presidential politics, who needs you?

A big region with a small vote

Don't be upset. This isn't a character flaw. It's a function of numbers and law. There aren't that many of you. Yes, there are more than there were in 1960, and you represent a somewhat greater proportion of the whole. But not much greater. The eight Rocky Mountain states together cast 34 electoral votes in 1960. This year they will deliver 40, and two-thirds of that increase comes from just one state - Arizona. Nevada has four times as many voters as it did in 1960, but just one more electoral vote. Colorado has gone from six to eight. Montana, on the other hand, gave Richard Nixon four electoral votes. It will give only three this year to whomever wins the state.

Which brings up the legal part of the equation. As long as we have this winner-take-all electoral college system, candidates will only campaign where it matters. Thanks to both politics and demographics (the near-absence of anyone but white Protestants), Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming are so safely Republican that either side would be wasting its time in them.

Colorado, with a bit more ethnic diversity, went for Bill Clinton in 1992, and is considered to be competitive this year, but barely. A poll taken at the end of September gave Texas Gov. George Bush a lead of 44-to-35 percent over Vice President Al Gore.

Gore and Joseph Lieberman are not ignoring Colorado, not only because they have a shot there, but because Colorado abuts Arizona, also leaning-but-not-solid Republican, and New Mexico, the one Rocky Mountain state considered to be a true toss-up. Clinton carried it twice, and Democrats can't help being competitive in a state that is some 35 percent Hispanic. Nevada, too, is "in play," as the politicians put it, but most polls show Bush in the lead.

The political odd-state-out in the Rockies is Montana. It is as white and Anglo as its ultra-Republican neighbors, but its populist history, lingering labor union influence, and environmentalish newcomers make it less dependably Republican. Clinton won Montana narrowly in 1992 and lost narrowly in 1996, perhaps because he barely tried. Were Gore to try, he might make a race of it there.

But he won't, and who can blame him? Why spend time and money on a long shot for three lousy electoral votes with no spin-off potential? Dakotans don't watch Billings TV and Gore is more likely to carry Alberta and Saskatchewan than Wyoming or Idaho.

Even New Mexico, up for grabs though it may remain, is likely to be ignored by late October. As the Kennedy and Carter examples demonstrate, even the closest presidential races aren't so close in the Electoral College. One could put together a scenario in which four electoral votes are pivotal. But a most improbable scenario it would be.

Stakes are higher for the West

Many and varied are the reasons the West is sparsely populated, but one is that so much of it is public land. Until subdivisions are legal in the national forests, more public land will mean fewer folks, hence fewer electoral votes.

And there's the rub. Where there is a lot of federal land, the actions of federal agencies, headed by presidential appointees, have a greater - or at least a more direct - impact on the day-to-day lives of the locals. To understand why you in the Inland West have a greater stake, if a smaller voice, in the outcome of this election, consider these two words: Mike Dombeck.

Should Gore win, Dombeck or someone who agrees with him about the primacy of preserving watersheds, wildlife habitat and biological diversity will continue to run the U.S. Forest Service. If Bush wins, there will be a new Forest Service Chief, one more interested in getting out the cut.

The difference would not be stark, but neither would it be inconsequential. Bush is not Ronald Reagan. Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana, a likely Interior Secretary in a Bush cabinet, is no James Watt, and a Bush-appointed Forest Service chief would no more abandon all concern for nature than would Dombeck try to abolish logging on public lands.

But even if a Bush administration doesn't try to reverse the monument dedications of the Clinton administration, or any roadless-area preservation plan Clinton might promulgate before leaving office, it would be far more receptive to proposals for more logging and mining on public lands, and for more access for mechanized recreation in the parks and forests.

Should Republicans keep control of Congress while winning the White House, the impact would be greater. Just think about all those "riders" dealing with public land that Western Republicans tried to add to spending bills these last several years, only to retreat because President Clinton threatened vetoes. Last month, for instance, Republicans tried to wangle into law a provision preventing the Interior Department from implementing new rules regulating mining practices on public lands. Clinton told them he'd veto any bill with that rider in it, and they blinked, agreeing to language that would allow tougher environmental standards.

It would be premature and unfair to proclaim with certainty that a President George W. Bush would have allowed that rider to enter into law unimpeded. But the folks trying to enact it were of his party, and they were doing it on behalf of his supporters. So it would be somewhat less likely that he would fight it, or even that his Interior Department would implement the stronger rules.

Sure, those mines are on land that belongs to all of us. But some of you live closer to it than most of us. So the impact of the decisions of some presidential appointees falls most immediately on you, even though you have relatively little to say about who appoints them.

This isn't fair. That's because it's life.

Jon Margolis covers the nation's capitol for HCN from his home in Vermont.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jon Margolis

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