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Know the West

In presidential politics, the West is a forgotten time zone


The other night, we were channel-surfing and hit upon the Miss America pageant. The contestants were being asked questions, and the one on the screen was "What year did women get the vote in the United States?" The answer, according to the pageant judges, was 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

The correct answer is a little more complicated. Women began voting in Wyoming Territory in 1869, and began voting in presidential elections after Wyoming became a state in 1890. Women from the Mountain West were voting for president long before the "official date" of 1920. In Colorado, Utah and Idaho, women first voted in the 1896 presidential election. Indeed, by 1920 Montana had already elected a woman, Jeannette Rankin, to the U.S. Congress.

You didn’t have to watch the Miss America pageant to see how we get ignored here. Just watch the short promos for what’s coming later. The announcement will say something like "11:00 Eastern, 10:00 Central." Once in a while there will be an "8:00 Pacific." But never a "9:00 Mountain." As far as the national media are concerned, our time zone doesn’t exist.

Our time zone is the network equivalent of flyover territory. But in a presidential election year, we might also ask a related question: Is the Mountain Time Zone also a political nonentity? Do the presidential campaigns need to pay attention to us?

There’s no simple answer to that question. Thanks to the arithmetic of the Electoral College, we have more clout than our population warrants. The extreme example of this imbalance comes from comparing Wyoming, with about 500,000 residents in the 2000 census, to California, with 34 million.

California gets 55 electoral votes — one for each of its 53 U.S. representatives, and two for its two senators. Wyoming has only one representative, and thus three electoral votes. Do the math, and each Wyoming electoral vote stands for about 170,000 people, while each California electoral vote stands for 618,000 people.

In other words, a Wyoming voter has nearly four times as much influence on the presidential election as a California voter. This extends, though not to such an extreme, throughout the Mountain Time Zone. Nationally, the average electoral vote stands for 526,000 people, but here, only 437,000. So, if the typical Mountain Time voter has 20 percent more clout than the typical American voter, why aren’t presidential candidates competing to accommodate us — perhaps by promising an end to "fee demo" on public land, catching up on deferred maintenance at our national parks, increasing funds to counties to make up for the property taxes that they cannot collect from public lands?

For starters, that Electoral College arithmetic favors states with small populations, but even so, we’re still lightweights. The Mountain Time Zone has only 37 of the 535 electoral votes — less than 7 percent. California, as mentioned, has 55; Texas, alone, has 34, and New York has 31. This means that a candidate can get just about as many votes from carrying one big state — and carrying that single state would not require the travel time and multiplicity of media markets that campaigning across seven states demands.

So we don’t offer much "bang for the buck." Candidates need to spend their resources where they’ll make a difference. You won’t see the Bush campaign spending much in Texas this year, even though it’s a big state with many electoral votes. Bush could carry Texas even if he announced plans to raze the Alamo because it was a threat to homeland security. So John Kerry isn’t going to spend a lot of time there. The reverse holds for Democratic strongholds like New York and California.

States need to be competitive to get attention. New Mexico is the only Rocky Mountain state that a Democrat carried last time around, and then by only 366 votes. Pollsters say Arizona and Colorado might be competitive this year — and so both Bush and Kerry are frequent visitors. But you won’t see much sign of either elsewhere in the Red Zone West, because the Republicans are so dominant. In 2000, Bush got 60 percent of the Montana vote, 68 percent in Utah, and 71 percent in Idaho and Wyoming. Noncompetitive states, especially ones with few electoral votes, aren’t worth the trouble for either party’s candidate.

That may explain America’s current political geography. The Republican Party may have been founded by New Englanders and Midwesterners, but it is today a Southern party, stretching from Texas east to Virginia and Florida.

The Democratic Party is a coastal party, especially if you count the Great Lakes as a coast. Neither party needs to have too much to do with our Mountain Time Zone, except to take it for granted, or else write it off entirely. And in neither case are they going to pay much attention to those of us on the ground in flyover country; their real constituencies are elsewhere, just like the network audiences.

Ed Quillen publishes Colorado Central Magazine in Salida, Colorado.