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.

High Country News Classifieds
    The Wilderness Society is currently recruiting a Colorado Plateau Representative. For more information please visit our website at
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks an executive director who possesses fundraising experience and an interest in land conservation. The successful candidate will be comfortable...
    The Clearwater Resource Council of Seeley Lake, MT seeks an Executive Director. Go to for a full description of the position and how to...
    The focus of this Regional Director of Development is to lead our major donor fundraising efforts in the Northwest, Northern Rockies, and Alaska regions. Reporting...
    Surrounded by Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Handcrafted home, barns, shop, garage, fruit trees, gardens, greenhouse, hay, pasture, wetlands, at headwaters of year-round creek. $865,000. For...
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
    High Country News seeks a talented and motivated individual to provide help desk support and assist with larger IT projects. Ideal candidates will have prior...
    The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF) is a national non-profit organization headquartered in Durango, Colorado with offices in San Francisco, Albuquerque, Anchorage, Boulder, Las Cruces, Las...
    High Country News seeks a multi-talented visual journalist to join the team in rural Paonia, Colorado. Design magazine pages, find/assign great photojournalism for print and...
    Home/horse property on 22.8 acres, pasture & ponderosa pines, near Mora, NM. Views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Near fishing, skiing, back-country hiking. Taos...
    Position and application details online at, Apply by March 31, 2018 to [email protected]!
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
    3500sf, 4BR/4BA, 3-car garage, sun-room/deck, hot tub, evaporative cooling, solar and thermal PV, views, fireplace. By appointment (970)274-3251 or [email protected] Visit
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.
    Valley, mountain and red rock views. City water and electricity at lot line. Five miles from Capitol Reef N.P.
    University of Montana West Faculty Vacancy Announcement Department: Environmental Sciences Position: Full-time, academic year, renewable, tenure track faculty position Salary Range: Assistant Professor $46,000-$50,000 -...
    WildEarth Guardians protects and restores the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. We seek a new director for our Wild...
    Here is an opportunity to have a piece of self-sufficient paradise on Idaho's Main Salmon River adjacent to the largest Forest Service wilderness area in...
    The most Relevant environmental novel of 2018, with The most unlikely heroine you will never forget.
    Restoration Seeds is seeking a part-time manager to build our seed grower network & help cultivate our seed collection.