Democrats Ascendant in the Rocky Mountain West

August 12, 2008

It’s been a long exile for Western Democrats. The last time Denver hosted a Democratic National Convention was over one hundred years ago, with the William Jennings Bryant Democrats of 1896. Since those heady days for Western Democrats, the Western path to the presidency has been something of a lost El Dorado. Rather than looking to the interior mountains, Democrats have conventioned in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Dallas and Miami, avoiding altogether the flyover states of the Rocky Mountain West.

But the tectonic plates of American politics shifted in 2004, when several Western states elected Democratic state houses, governors and Members of Congress; followed by the big electoral earthquake of 2006, which shattered the old mold and revealed a new electoral geography.

The West is turning blue.

Democrats are suddenly running and winning in races from Arizona to Montana, all across the once reliable eight-state Republican region. Leading strategists (here, here or here are advising the Democrats to drop their southern infatuation and follow the Western route to the presidency, and once again the Democrats are bringing their national convention to Denver.

“I have long believed that the essence of a Democratic victory goes through the West,” Party chair Howard Dean has noted.“If we are going to have a national party, we are going to have to have Westerners to vote Democratic again on a reliable basis.” The demconwatch.blogspot.com website presents a plethora of insider excitement over rising Democratic prospects in the West: “In the West, it is our time,” stated Denver’s DNC host committee president, Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, upon learning that Denver had been chosen to host the 2008 DNC. Colorado Senator Ken Salazar added that “Colorado is an ideal site to showcase the Democratic Party’s resurgence and our hopes for the future,” while Harold Ickes (deputy chief of staff for President Clinton) weighed in that “I think Denver, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West are an area that’s increasingly in the Democratic focus and out to be”.

Colorado is the showcase of the changing West, electing a Democratic state legislature and a Democratic Senator in 2004, choosing a Democratic Governor in 2006 and sending a Democratic delegation to the U.S. House

Montana, a state that hadn’t elected a Democratic House and Governor for decades, recently turned its state house and Governor’s office over to the Democrats, and sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.

Five years ago, the eight-state Rocky Mountain region boasted eight GOP governors. Today, there are only three. Even Wyoming has a Democratic governor.

And that’s why the Democrats are coming to Denver for their convention. Win Colorado or New Mexico, and Al Gore wouldn’t have needed Florida, back in 2000.

What accounts for the Democrat’s Western strength? Some point to the Latino surge—Latinos are rapidly growing in the West, and they vote Democrat. Certainly party strategists and scholars are focused on the behaviors of this growing Latino vote.


Some point to the Cowboy Democrats as the source of western change—its all those libertarian rural cowboys, fed up with a GOP that has lost its way; they’re turning Dem or sitting it out.

And, some (here or here) point to the Californians—its all those new creative class liberal transplants pouring in from the Coast—they’re Californicating Colorado.

I’m part of a research team covering this subject, and we’ve run the numbers for a forthcoming article, and here’s what I can tell you. It’s the Californians. The engine of liberalism in the West are those migrating in from other states—with California the biggest contributor.

What about the other two theories? Latinos are indeed growing in the west, and they tend to vote Democratic, put the fact is that Latinos post very low voting rates (many of them are ineligible to vote, and many others have simply not yet been mobilized into dependable political participation). Every year, this group grows as an electoral force, but to date it cannot be said that Latinos are voting at high enough levels to be the driving force behind change in the West.

As for the Cowboy Democrats—the actual voting data shows that the cowboy counties (those most sparsely populated and most dependent on agriculture, especially in states like Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana) are actually NOT trending towards the Democrats. The more cowboy the county, the more likely it is to buck the Democratic movement in the West and actually be trending towards the Republicans. So it’s not the Latinos and it’s not the cowboys driving the West left-it’s the Californians.

Interstate migrants into the West hail most often from California counties that are substantially more Democratic than the Western area they are moving into, they are more likely to be single, childless and white-collar than existing residents, more likely to work within the “creative class” sector of the economy; and they catalyze rising Democratic strength wherever they show up.

When new migrants pour into once isolated rural counties by the thousands, moving into the West from the coastal regions, bubbling into the rural hinterlands out of Democratic powerhouses like Denver, and bringing a new, creative economy with them—they are announcing an electoral transformation that is shaking the foundation of the existing geography of political power in America.

And that’s why Obama is coming to Denver—to ride the Californians to the presidency.