Can the West become the new South?

Western primary could give the Rockies a louder voice in Washington


In September 1948, President Harry Truman stood on the rear platform of his campaign train and told Grand Junction, Colo., that "reclamation, irrigation and power" were the "lifeblood of the West ... Those Eastern fellows," he added — meaning Washington politicians — didn’t have a clue about the region.

With vast spaces between small clusters of voters, and a combined total of only 44 electoral votes (compared to California’s 55), the eight states of the Interior West tend to get lost in national political campaigns. During the four-week run-up to Election Day 2004, the two presidential candidates and their running mates made a total of 19 visits to the Interior West, dodging Idaho, Montana and Utah altogether. Meanwhile, they made 64 stops in Florida during that time and 40 in Iowa.

That could change in 2008, if a bipartisan effort to hold a one-day, multi-state Western primary takes off. This spring, Utah legislators appropriated $850,000 to hold a February 2008 primary, and New Mexico and Arizona are poised to follow. If a couple more states go along with them, says Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, R, the West will have "a real opportunity to speak out as a region, to box beyond our weight."

Regional clout

Climbing into an early slot on the nomination calendar gives even small states loud voices. Presidential hopefuls spend months in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first caucus and primary respectively, shaking hands with farmers and business owners, listening to their concerns, spending tens of millions of dollars. It usually pays off: In the last 30 years, all but one of the eventual major party nominees won either in New Hampshire, Iowa or both. The exception was Bill Clinton, who placed a distant third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire.

But Clinton had a secret weapon: the South. On Super Tuesday, a simultaneous primary of mostly Southern states, Clinton pulled off a big win. After that, he was unstoppable. His victory demonstrated a regional primary’s power to amplify the voices of small states.

The idea of a Western primary first gained currency in 1998, when the Western Governors’ Association launched a drive to hold a Super Tuesday of its own. It simmered until New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, and Huntsman picked up the cause in 2005 and began actively campaigning states to join them. It’s not an easy sell: State political parties typically pay to hold caucuses, but two-party primaries, which can cost around $2 million, are generally paid for by the state. That’s the reason Montana’s Legislature shot down a primary proposal this year.

Richardson’s enthusiasm may stem from presidential ambitions; a strong Western voice could give him leverage against Eastern candidates. It could do the same for Arizona Sen. John McCain, R, currently a Republican front-runner for 2008. There are also economic benefits: New Hampshire reaps an estimated $264 million from media and campaign visits in the lead-up to its presidential primary.

But the Western primary pushers are looking beyond all that. For them, the primary is about a neglected region being heard in Washington. "If either party’s nominee owed his or her selection in part to the West, it would give the region a much greater voice in the candidate’s platform, and a greater say in cabinet appointments and policy proposals," says Daniel Kemmis, senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

If presidential candidates saw more at stake in the West, Kemmis says, politicians and the national media would have to think about Western water, the impacts of drought, wildfire, energy development, tribal issues and public lands. Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT — the program that reimburses property tax losses for counties with high percentages of public land — could become as much a part of the national lexicon as ethanol.

The new South?

But a regional voice can only be heard if states come together and speak as one. And that’s not easy in the West, according to Ed Quillen, a Denver Post columnist and longtime political observer. Compared to the South, with its strong Protestant leanings and historical sense of a regional culture and economy, the West is fractured. Its states emerged at different times and for different reasons. "The West could never really create a (regional) political identity," Quillen says.

That, says Kemmis, is why a primary is important: It will help the region form that political identity. "It’s not a matter of the poor, neglected West trying to get someone to pay attention to us," says Kemmis. "It’s a question of a maturing region trying to be thoughtful about enhancing and protecting our long-term interests."

If Westerners felt like their votes counted in the nomination process, they’d be more likely to participate. Voter turnout shot up in the South when Super Tuesday began, and New Hampshire consistently has the highest primary turnout in the nation.

Still, any impact may be limited to urban areas, says Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D. "I’m not convinced that it will bring candidates to stop anywhere except Salt Lake City, Denver or Santa Fe, which is what they do anyway," Freudenthal says. Travis Ridout, assistant professor of political science at Washington State University, is similarly skeptical: "Utah is still a very small state. It is not going to become the center of the political universe. It’s not going to draw the type of attention that some people may like."

And what if the campaigns do flock to the West? Will the complexity of regional issues translate into the sound-bite world of TV politics? "They might address public-land issues," Quillen says, "but it would probably just be blather. You could write their speech, and so could I."

"I don’t think you’ll see any issues solved," admits Chris McKinnon, a policy analyst with the Western Governors’ Association. "But to be even smart enough to get to a sound bite, they’ll have to know the issue well enough," he says. "And if that person gets elected president, they will already have a leg up on Western issues."

A region in play

At least part of the West may get the political attention it seeks without a regional primary. In August, Democrats pushed the Nevada caucus to the second spot on the presidential nominating calendar, putting it on par with Iowa and New Hampshire (Republicans haven’t decided yet whether to do the same). McKinnon says candidates are already scheduling visits to the Silver State.

That may focus attention on issues like the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository, which is widely despised in Nevada but crucial to the national nuclear industry’s future; and on the Colorado River Compact, which limits the state’s water supply. The state’s Hispanics, who make up 23 percent of the population, should add some diversity; Iowa and New Hampshire are both over 90 percent white. And Ridout sees Nevada helping more "pragmatic and moderate" Democratic candidates who have a libertarian streak, don’t like gun control and oppose the Patriot Act.

The West, outside of New Mexico, has gone decidedly Republican during the last few presidential elections, giving candidates little reason to bother with campaigning here. But the Democrats’ recent local- and state-level successes have given both parties a sense that the region is in play. And the West’s rapid growth means that the big empty spaces Truman rolled across in 1948 are gradually filling in. In the end, more voters may be the only sure way for the West to gain political clout.


Jonathan Thompson is HCN’s associate editor. Paul Krza writes from Socorro, New Mexico.

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