Election Review, Part 3: The West

Election Review, Part 3: The West

By Jay Cost and Sean Trende - January 18, 2009

Today we continue our analysis of the 2008 election with a review of the Western Region. This Census Bureau region consists of two divisions: the Pacific West and the Mountain West.

Pacific West

The Pacific West is unique if for no other reason than two of its five states were the home states of Presidential candidates. Because of this, it is difficult to analyze these states' voting patterns. Given the state of McCain's Alaska polling before the Republican convention, it seems unlikely that he would have won the state by twenty points without Palin on the ticket. Similarly, Obama's ties to Hawaii probably added to his 40-point victory there. In other words, because of the personal nature of the vote in these small states, we just can't glean too much useful information from them.

What we see overall in the Pacific West is that Obama performed a few points better than Bill Clinton's share of the two party vote, reflecting the region's gradual swing toward the Democrats over the past several decades, as this chart makes clear:

Pacific West By Region By CBSA.jpg

As was the case in the South and the Midwest, much of this improvement is due to Obama's improvement in the larger urban areas. Obama did about as well as Clinton in the small towns, and a bit worse in the rural areas. Relative to Kerry, Obama improved in all of our Census Bureau Statistical Area (CBSA) categories. Let's take a look at the map of the region.

Pacific West.jpg

In Oregon and Washington, the 2008 map resembles the 2004 and 1996 maps. There's a little more Democratic strength in the "grass belt" counties on the coast, and a little more weakness in the interior counties.

But in California, we see that Obama did even better inland than Clinton did. Our examination of returns shows that the biggest swings in California came in Merced, Yuba, Stanislaus (Modesto), Sacramento, San Bernadino, Sutter and San Joaquin counties. All of these are interior inland counties in California. Six of these seven are located in the Central Valley, and five are considered either "large town" or "small city" counties. More importantly, these counties can be considered "subprime central" - the local economies have been hard hit by the housing bust. We might expect them to reject the GOP at a higher rate than other counties.

So what we see in the Pacific West is a sort of "generic movement" toward the Democrats, commensurate with the rest of the nation, with some added movement toward the Democrats where the collapse of the economy was felt the strongest.

The Mountain West

The Mountain West was one of the most interesting divisions on Election Day. Obama flipped three states from red to blue, and came close to flipping a fourth (Montana). These results are the latest chapter in what appears to be a decade-long bleed for Republicans in the division. If the South Central divisions represent the decline of the Democrats' historic base, the Mountain West represents this for the GOP. Consider the following chart:

Democratic Electoral Strength in Mountain West.jpg

The Mountain West had been incorporated into the country in an attempt to create a permanent Republican majority during the 1880s. As if to demonstrate the difficulty in planning majorities more than a few years out, the region quickly dallied with the populists and Bryan Democrats, before returning to the Republican fold. But in the wake of the Great Depression, the region swung heavily to the Democrats.

The next forty years are a story of the region's slow return to become, along with the South, the base of the modern GOP. It is hard now to believe, but even as late as the 1998 midterm elections, Republicans held 21 of the division's 24 Congressional districts. Today, in a startling turnabout, Republicans hold only 11 of the 28 districts.

Democrats also have steadily climbed back from the 32% of the vote that Jimmy Carter won in the region in 1980. Barack Obama's share of the Presidential vote (48.5%) is the second-highest of any Democrat since LBJ carried the region in 1964 (Bill Clinton's 48.9% of the two-party vote in 1992 likely was due in part to Ross Perot drawing disproportionately from President Bush here, just as he likely drew disproportionately from Clinton in New England).

We'll look at the states in groups, but first a brief note on Arizona. Senator McCain's performance here held steady relative to Bush's 2004 showing, in contrast to other states in the region. According to exit polling, McCain won 41% of the Latino vote here, down only slightly from Bush's 43%. We attribute this unlikely stability to McCain's status as a four-term Senator from the state. We also intuit that without McCain at the top of the ticket, the Republicans would have faced problems here similar to the problems they faced in states like Colorado and Nevada.

Another note. As was the case in the Pacific West and the South, we find Obama doing better than Clinton in the Mountain West as the size of the urban area increases. Obama underperformed Clinton in the rural and small town counties, ran about even in the large towns, and did better than Clinton in the cities. We'll find this once again when we turn our attention to the Midwest.

Utah, Idaho, Wyoming

Like Oregon and Washington, there is very little to say about Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. All three remain deeply Republican; McCain defeated Obama by more than 25 points in each.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these states is that even though they were not targeted as swing states, they all swung. In fact, all of them swung more toward Obama than heavily targeted states such as Florida and Ohio. We see this in other non-targeted states as well, such as Vermont and Maryland. This provides some evidence that, for all the talk of advertising and turnout operations, forces exogenous to the campaigns provided most of the movement toward the Democrats this cycle.


Montana had one of the largest swings in the country, going from a state that Bush won by over twenty points twice, to a state that Obama nearly carried. What accounts for this swing?

To start with, the state is nearly uniformly white. Unlike other states that we will be looking at, Montana has small Hispanic and African American populations. Hence, the movement here is almost entirely explained by the white vote (there is a significant Native American vote on reservations, as we will see in the maps).

Notably, President George W. Bush did substantially better than even his father did in 1988, even though "Bush 43" failed to win the nationwide popular vote by the same margin his father did. To put it differently, in 1988 and 1992 the state was pretty close to the national average. In 1996 it was a few points more Republican than the country, and in 2000 and 2004 it was about 10 points more Republican than the country. In 2008, it had returned to being a few points more Republican than the national average.

We think there are a few reasons for this. The 2000-2004 Montana results (and to a lesser extent the 1996 results) probably overstated Republican strength in the state. Montana has voted within a few points of the national average in almost every other presidential election since Roosevelt. The recent swing could have a number of causes - the unpopularity of Clinton's land policies in the West, or perhaps Bush's cowboy-like cultural appeal to the state (especially vis-à-vis Kerry and Gore).

Let's examine how the parties have performed according to our CBSA classifications.

Montana By CBSA.jpg

Once again, we find Obama performing worse relative to Clinton in the rural areas, and better in the larger urban areas. What's intriguing is that these differences balanced themselves out - Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 1996 scored about the same share of the state's two-party vote.

Looking at the maps provides more perspective:

Montana 1996-2008.jpg

On a superficial level, the 1996 and 2008 maps look very similar. The Democratic base is in Big Horn, Glacier, Roosevelt, Missoula, Deer Lodge, and Silver Bow counties. All three Democrats (Clinton, Kerry, and Obama) won these counties, and the reasons are not difficult to identify. These counties have substantial non-white populations. Missoula is home to the University of Montana. Deer Lodge county, home to the Anaconda mining company, along with Silver Bow (Butte) have Democratic traditions stretching back to the days of William Jennings Bryan, cast strong ballots for Eugene Debs in 1912, and have only voted Republican a couple of times since then. Obama failed to carry a few counties that Clinton carried in the East, while adding Lewis and Clark (Helena) and Lake County (Flathead Indian reservation) in the West.

We can see a stronger trend if we look at the change in counties from 1996 to 2008.

Montana Countywide Change.jpg

Clearly the western portions of the state moved more toward the Democrats than did the east. This is consistent with the state's historic voting patterns: the west was typically more unionized and Democratic than the ranchers in the east. Again, this can be interpreted as supporting either the "land use" theory of the state's movement, or the "cowboy/culture" theory of the state's movement. Either way, the re-emergence of the state's historic voting patterns at the regional level leads us to believe that the state will likely remain more toward the center of presidential politics than it previously has been.


Colorado pioneered the region's movement toward the Republicans in the 1940s. Along with Wyoming, it voted against Roosevelt in both 1940 and 1944. It also seems to have led the retreat. Clinton's strong showings in 1992 and 1996 were thought by many to be flukes, attributable to Perot's performance. But Gore came within single digits of carrying the state in 2000, and Kerry came within four points. The state now has two Democratic Senators, five of the seven House members. Additionally, Democrats won the Governor's mansion by 17 points in 2006, and control both state houses. Some of this is due to the Democrats' success in obtaining a favorable districting map in 2000, but it is difficult to dispute that the state has shifted leftward.

Obama improved upon Kerry's showing in the state by seven points, and upon Clinton's 1996 showing by five points. As the charts below show, Obama only marginally improved over Clinton in rural counties, and actually only ran three points ahead of Dukakis (though he improved over Kerry by about six points). His performance in small and large town counties is similar to his statewide improvement. In the large cities, his improvement is greater, about eight points upon Kerry and six points upon Clinton.

Colorado By CBSA.jpg

An interesting twist is that, according to exit poll data, Obama actually performed about seven points worse among Hispanics in Colorado than did Kerry. While we may attribute this to sampling error, we find this intriguing. However, the Hispanic portion of the electorate increased from 8% to 13%, and it still broke 2:1 for Obama, forming the Democrats' base in the state. What really moved was the white vote, which went from Bush +15 to Obama +2.

Again, the maps are instructive.

Colorado 1996-2008.jpg

Looking at Clinton's 1996 map, we can see that the Democrats' base is basically a "C", encompasing these heavily Hispanic counties in the South, swinging through the resort counties on the front range, then encompassing Denver and its inner suburbs in Adams county. Kerry maintained this map, but added the counties in the San Juan mountains around Telluride in the Southwest. Obama built upon this map even more, adding suburban Arapahoe county along with other fast-growing counties upon the Front Range.

Thus, at least in Colorado, Republicans' problem was not the Hispanic vote, which actually moved toward them. It was the loss of whites, who abandoned the party in droves.


Comparing a map of Nevada in 1996 to a map of Nevada in 2008 reveals a state seemingly in stasis.

Nevada 1996-2008.jpg

Yet there is an underlying reality here. Two counties in Nevada - Washoe (Reno) and Clark (Las Vegas) cast 86% of the state's vote in 2008. Unfortunately for the GOP, it is losing ground there. Clark County has moved toward the Democrats in every presidential contest since 1988, going from 41% of the vote for Michael Dukakis to 58% of the vote for Obama. The movement in Washoe is less steady but is equally dramatic, from 37% Democrat in 1988 to 55% in 2008.

Here, exit polls reveal the movement toward Obama among Hispanics to be pronounced. Hispanics went from being 10% of the electorate and voting 60-39 for Kerry to being 15% of the electorate and breaking 76-22% for Obama. Whites only dropped marginally, voting 55% for Bush and 53% for McCain. To be sure, this is likely due in part to the rural counties, which, although making up only 15% of the electorate, voted as heavily Republican as they did in 1988 (though not as heavily as they did in 2000 or 2004).

New Mexico

Finally, we come to New Mexico. Long the most heavily Democratic of the Mountain West states, it was unsurprising to see it voting about four points more Democratic than the rest of the country. The 2004 and 2008 maps are basically identical, so we will not reproduce them here, but Republicans maintained their base in the Southeast of the state, while Democrats won the rest of the state. The state as a whole swung fairly uniformly toward the Democrats, with rural, small town, large town, and small city counties all moving about seven points toward the Democrats. Compared with Clinton's 1996 win, the Democrats are actually weaker in rural counties, but stronger in urban counties, effecting a net swing of about four points statewide. Again, this is consistent with what we've seen nationwide in these reviews.

New Mexico is one of the most heavily Latino states in the nation. Latinos make up 41% of the state's electorate (up from 32% in 2004), although unlike other states they tend to be old Hispanic families whose ancestors settled the state, rather than immigrants. Here too, McCain ran about as well as Bush among whites. But Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote in New Mexico, compared with 30% for McCain. Combined with the increased proportion of the Hispanic electorate, it was enough to doom McCain's campaign.


The West is a broad, diverse region, and it is therefore dangerous to generalize about the causes of the GOP's decline here. Obviously some of it can be attributed to the increased Hispanic presence. But it is also possible to overstate that problem, as the Hispanic vote is still fairly small in these states - around 15% -- and is not as uniformly Democrat as the African American vote in the South. The GOP has a white problem in the area, as seen in states such as Montana and Colorado, and ought not forget that when crafting policy.

Overall, the Democrats have good reason to be optimistic in the region. New Mexico will likely remain a state that leans Democrat (compared to the rest of the nation) for the foreseeable future, and it will be difficult for the GOP to reverse Democratic gains in Nevada. The same is true of the Pacific West. Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah will likely remain significantly more Republican than the rest of the country, which is no small consolation given Utah's rate of growth. Colorado is something of an "X" factor, but if the GOP's problem is really among white voters there, it may find it easier to extricate itself from its problems than in states where its decline is attributable to Hispanic voters.

Finally, it is probably useful to caution the Democrats' demographic determinists in the region. Nothing lasts forever. The collapse of the housing markets in Las Vegas and Phoenix could slow immigration there. Likewise, the decline of the economy has already shown signs of affecting immigration patterns from south of the border. While we don't expect the GOP's decline in the region to reverse, it may not ultimately be as abrupt as many suggest. In turn, this slowing of the rate of change could give the GOP an opportunity to recalibrate its message for when the next surge comes.

Sean Trende can be contacted at

Jay Cost and Sean Trende

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