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August 25, 2019

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Revisiting America’s new swing region

Editor’s note: Over the past three months, The Sunday and the Brookings Institution, in partnership with UNLV and Brookings Mountain West, presented a series of guest columns on state and national election issues in advance of the Oct. 19 presidential debate at UNLV. This is the final installment.

In 2012, Brookings Mountain West at UNLV and the Brookings Institution collaborated on a book project, “America’s New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West.” It examined how the politics of Mountain West states — Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Utah — are being reshaped by the region’s changing demography and increased urbanization.

Revisiting the book’s thesis helps to illuminate the current state of electoral competition across the region. Indeed, the emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee heightened the generational, educational and ethnic and racial cleavages that are salient throughout the region, while Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign illustrates the degree to which her party’s electoral fortunes depend upon outsize support from younger and minority voters and cutting into the GOP’s margins among suburban and college-educated voters.

New Mexico and Colorado, with five and nine electoral votes respectively, demonstrate how these dynamics pushed states from traditional swing states toward more reliably Democratic states over the past decade.

In the case of New Mexico, the state’s large minority population (it has the smallest share of whites in the region) and the concentration of roughly half the state’s residents in the Albuquerque metropolitan area are the main drivers of increased Democratic support. Colorado, too, is heavily urbanized (more than half of Coloradans live in the Denver area), and although the state has a growing Latino population, it remains roughly 70 percent white.

However, Colorado has the nation’s third-highest share of residents over age 25 with a bachelor’s degree. The partisan divide among voters with and without a college degree is one of the defining schisms of this election cycle and explains, in part, why Clinton is favored to keep Colorado in the Democratic column for the third consecutive presidential election.

Yet, even as Colorado and New Mexico become more hospitable to Democratic presidential candidates, Republicans continue to win other offices in both states, particularly in midterm elections when the share of minority voters is much smaller and there are fewer resources available for voter-registration and voter-mobilization efforts. For instance, Colorado re-elected its Democratic governor in 2014 while voting out a Democratic U.S. senator. In New Mexico, the state’s Republican governor and Democratic U.S. senator both easily won re-election. Both states also feature split partisan control of their legislatures.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Republican strongholds of Idaho (four electoral votes) and Utah (six). Both states contain limited diversity in population relative to the rest of the region, in which Idaho is the least urbanized. While it’s unlikely that Democrats will be competitive in Idaho any time soon, Trump’s weaker-than-expected poll numbers in Utah caused Clinton to open a campaign office in Salt Lake City, and Republican incumbent Mia Love is no lock in the state’s 4th Congressional District. Still, only the most optimistic Democrat is likely to believe that in November, Utah will go Democratic for the first time since 1964.

Falling somewhere between Colorado/New Mexico and Idaho/Utah are Arizona (11 electoral votes) and Nevada (six). Both states are highly urbanized and have significant and growing minority populations, with Nevada projected to become a majority-minority state by decade’s end. They’re characterized also by populations that largely migrated from elsewhere, including other countries, and feature the region’s largest differences in racial and ethnic compositions of under-40 and over-40 populations. They have below-average numbers of residents with college degrees and typically generate low levels of voter turnout, particularly in midterm elections when the states’ constitutional offices are on the ballot.

Given their demographic and cultural profiles, Arizona and Nevada are attractive to both Democrats and Republicans. To date, Democrats have struggled to break through in Arizona, while the party’s performance in Nevada is stronger, albeit uneven in recent election cycles. For example, in 2012, President Barack Obama carried Nevada by nearly six points, while Republican Dean Heller defeated Democrat Shelley Berkley in a closely contested race for the U.S. Senate. In 2014, Democrat Steven Horsford lost to Cresent Hardy in the 4th Congressional District despite the district being home to 33,000 more active registered Democrats than Republicans.

With the 2016 election less than a month away, the Mountain West states are behaving in a manner consistent with the thesis articulated in “America’s New Swing Region.” In the more heavily urbanized and diverse states and in states with higher levels of college attainment, Clinton is well positioned to secure their electoral votes, while Trump is likely to fare better in states that are less urbanized and less diverse and where the population is less educated.

The region’s long-term demographic trajectory may, at least on paper, favor Democrats. If recent history is any guide, don’t be surprised to see some of these states deliver split partisan outcomes this election cycle because of a number of factors, including variation in the favorability of incumbents running for the House and Senate, the impact of outside spending, the quality of down-ticket campaigns and the propensity of some voters to stop voting after marking their choice for president. Adding to the region’s swing status is the growing number of voters registering as nonpartisans. As they are less predictable in both their preferences and likelihood of turning out to vote, the long-term electoral prospects for both parties is likely to hinge on the ability to consistently attract the support of these voters.

David Damore is a professor of political science at UNLV, a Brookings Mountain West Fellow and a senior analyst with Latino Decisions. He regularly comments on Nevada politics for local, national and international media outlets.

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