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Should Dems Look West?

By Peter Brown

DENVER - While all the attention in the presidential race today is focused on the primaries, within the Democratic Party there is a great deal of thinking about electoral vote strategy which will be all that counts a year from now.

And at the heart of every conversation is the question of whether the Democrats should continue their recent and unsuccessful strategy of putting their chips on winning either Florida or Ohio in order to achieve an Electoral College majority in a tight election.

There is considerable support for a new path that would go straight through Colorado and its regional neighbors New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada - none of which has been especially hospitable to Democratic presidential candidates over the past 40 years.

But if Democrats - who did quite well in these four states in the 2006 off-year elections - can win them all next year, then they don't need either Florida or Ohio.

In the 2000 and 2004 elections, it was George W. Bush's narrow victories in Ohio and Florida that put him in the White House and left Al Gore and John Kerry wondering what they could have done to become presidents rather than historical afterthoughts.

Presidential campaigns are inherently zero-sum games, because there is never enough candidate time or money to compete full-bore in all 50 states. More than half of the states - such as liberal bastions like Vermont and conservative strongholds like Utah - almost never see presidential candidates or local TV ads since they are predictably Democratic and Republican respectively. The other half are judged competitive to some degree or another based on political history and demographics.

But, in the 2000 and 2004 squeakers the campaign boiled down to best two-out-of-three between Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

President Bush narrowly won Ohio (20 electoral votes) and Florida (27) and the White House both times. In 2000, he had 271 electoral votes. One more than the 270 needed for victory; in 2004 he had 286 electoral votes.

The notion that in 2008 the Democrats might be better of concentrating more of their resources in what has become known as the "Southwestern Strategy" is based on the fact these states all have growing Democratic-leaning Hispanic populations.

But it is also based on the hope that the Hispanic vote can be mobilized and brought out in sufficient numbers to overcome the Republican advantage with white voters.

The African-American population - the most loyal Democratic voting bloc - is smaller in these four states than it is in either Ohio and Florida. Moreover, in Ohio the perception of a declining economy gives the Democrats a stronger case with white voters than in the West, where the economies are doing better.

The four Southwestern states have been solidly Republican at the presidential level over the last four decades. Arizona and Colorado both have 10 electoral votes, and Nevada has five. Each has voted Democratic for president only once since 1968. New Mexico has five electoral votes and it has voted twice for a Democrat in that period, although in 2004, it went for Bush by only 6,000 votes.

Of course, the decision on how to allocate campaign resources will be made by the eventual Democratic nominee next summer. However, the interest in the "Southwestern strategy" was certainly a part of the decision by party leaders to hold their national convention here next August.

One clear indication of what the Democrats will decide in terms of their strategy could well come in whom the eventual nominee picks as his or her vice presidential running mate.

If the Democrats again want to put more of their chips on Ohio or Florida once again (Florida is a more difficult challenge) then their vice presidential candidate might be an Ohioan, most likely Gov. Ted Strickland, who is very popular in the state.

Should they decide to go southwestern, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is running for president himself in what many believe is an audition for vice president, might well be the choice.

Obviously, the vice presidential decision is many months away, but the eventual Democratic nominee's choice may tell us a great deal about the party's Electoral College strategy.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu

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