Painting the Mountain States Blue

Hopeful Democrats will not just be showcasing their candidates and purveying a spectacle of unity as they gather in Denver today for their convention. Equally important, they will be planting their blue flag in America’s newest, most geographically expansive “swing” region – the fast-growing, increasingly diverse, no-longer-reliably-Republican Intermountain West.

To be sure, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and, to a lesser degree, Arizona remain distinctly red in the eyes of most coastal Americans.

A land of sagebrush and Sagebrush Rebellions, these states have been known even in recent years more for Republican politics and Endangered Species Act blow-back than nationally significant political jujitsu.

But thanks to sweeping economic changes and a massive influx of blue-leaning voters, the southern Intermountain region has now become central to the Democrats’ new strategy for assembling a winning coalition.

Concentrating and speeding this transformation has been the emergence of what the Virginia Tech urban scholar Robert Lang calls its “megapolitan” areas – vast, newly recognized “super-metros” that often combine two or more metropolitan areas into a single economic, social, and urban zone, such as revolves now around Denver, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Tucson.

Now home to huge pluralities of their states’ employment and social and cultural life, these “mountain megas” are capturing the lion’s share of each state’s population growth. Spurred by this growth, the nature of the West’s economy has transitioned sharply away from traditional resource-extraction and agriculture toward such “New West” activities as information technology, knowledge creation, and aerospace as well as tourism and hospitality. Along the way urban development, infrastructure, and education issues have joined energy development and water resources as hot-button issues – just like elsewhere.

Yet what’s most important for the political class is the changing demography that has accompanied the region’s growth. In each of the southern Intermountain states, the greatest population growth has occurred among minority populations, especially Hispanics, and among whites with bachelor’s degrees and higher education. Polls show these groups leaning more toward the Democrats than white, working-class populations, whose growth is either modest or negative. Such decline is the key toward the states’ possible “tip” to the Democrats, according to political scholar Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of “Why the White Working-Class Still Matters.” Nor does it hurt that the plurality of new migrants are arriving from blue California origins.

Colorado would clearly be the prize for Democrats as the informal capital of the New West. Here it depends on how much the new blue-leaning migrants to Denver’s exurbs and Colorado Springs will trim Republican advantages of the past, which trumped the strongly Democratic Denver, its inner suburbs, and Boulder. The trend looks promising for Democrats given the party’s recent success in senatorial, gubernatorial, and state legislative contests.

Nevada, for its part, is not far from a Democratic takeover simply because of the huge influx of former Californians and Hispanics to Las Vegas, a Democratic stronghold. It is also quite possible but not a shoo-in that New Mexico is also likely to tip Democratic in light of its razor-thin Bush victory in 2004 and new, blue-leaning growth in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Arizona remains the biggest long shot of the four, if only because the GOP standard bearer is its native son.

The Democrats are planting their flag in shifting sands. Just as the Democrats may be “rolling the dice” in nominating a young, multiethnic, youth-oriented candidate, after years of relying on tried and true party stalwarts, they are also taking a gamble in counting on the New West as a crucial part of their future-oriented strategy. However, one thing is sure: In betting on this fast-growing, increasingly urban dynamo of a region, they are making both the convention and the race through November even more compelling than it might have been.