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The West Is Not "the West," Part I

Here's my two-part plea to pollsters: A) When possible, give regional breakdowns of national polls, B) and when you give these breakdowns, don't pretend there's a political entity called the "West."

While the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest are all relatively coherent political beings, which can be discussed as regions despite the obvious fact that there is infinite texture to any measure of public opinion, there is no such thing as the West. There is the Pacific Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington), and there are the eight states of the interior West (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). There is no West.

To take one current example: the recent Pew analysis of President Bush's approval ratings. Now, I love the folks over at Pew, and they're always extraordinarily accommodating about breaking out their data in different ways. But let's just look at Bush's approval rating percentages, broken down by four geographic regions:

Dec. 2004: 39
May 2006: 27
Change: -12

Dec. 2004: 56
May 2006: 36
Change: -20

Dec. 2004: 48
May 2006: 32
Change: -16

Dec. 2004: 46
May 2006: 33
Change: -13

It looks, with a four-region breakdown, as if Bush is strongest in the South (though he's taken the biggest fall there) and weakest in the Northeast.

Now let's look at the West broken down between the coast and the interior (a breakdown provided by the kind folks over at Pew):

Interior West
Dec. 2004: 56
May 2006: 48
Change: -8

Pacific Coast
Dec. 2004: 41
May 2006: 24
Change: -17

Suddenly, we've got a new high and a new low. Bush is doing worse on the Pacific Coast than in the Northeast (24 vs. 27 -- though, granted, that might not be statistically significant) and he's doing far better in the interior West than in the South (a rather stunning 48 vs. 36). What's more, the interior West has seen the least movement in Bush's poll numbers between December of 2004 and May of 2006, a testament to just how solid his support is in the region.

What does it mean? Well, that's a question for another post. For now, my point is simply this: Any regional breakdown labeled "West" is simply an average of the Pacific Coast and the interior West, which are quite separate in their politics. Such a designation is utterly useless for understanding America's political geography.

And given that the interior West is beginning to be seen as a strategically crucial region for both parties (not just in my book, but also in an intriguing new book coming out later this year from Democratic political science professor Tom Schaller), it's time to start looking at it as a distinct entity.