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Election 2008 Key States: Colorado, New Mexico

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Robert Struckman
Editor, New West
Thursday, October 30, 2008; 12:00 PM

New West editor Robert Struckman was online Thursday, Oct. 30 at noon ET to break down the state of the presidential race and U.S. Senate races in the West -- including possible Democratic pickups in Colorado and New Mexico -- as well as competitive U.S. House races in the Rocky Mountain states.

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Battleground Cheat Sheet: Colorado; also this week: More discussions on key states

The transcript follows.

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Annandale, Va.: I was in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week on a business trip, and came away with several important observations that probably were not reported on back East. First, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that Obama raised more contributions from this Republican stronghold than did McCain. Second, Michelle Obama packed the City Auditorium, and the Gazette reported that another 1,000 didn't get in. The audience was polite and represented every demographic of the community.

Third, while I was at the rally, I spoke with several locals (including some with military backgrounds), who were voting for a Democrat for president for the first time in their adult life. Obama seems to be ahead in the polls, and appears to be following the Colorado script written by Sen. Salazar. Do you think this could represent a resurgence of the Democratic Party in the Rocky Mountain West?

Robert Struckman: Hey Annandale. I think your observations are right on target. Barack Obama has drawn huge crowds -- enthusiastic crowds -- across the Mountain West. I imagine there are a lot of stories of people who are voting for a Democrat candidate for the first time. Some areas of the Mountain West, not really including Colorado, have a strong history of populism though, and that's one of the things that has been returning lately. That's not to say that the cultural conservatism out here should be discounted, but it seems to be less of a factor this year. It's tough to make judgment calls as to why, but it seems to me that the economy has played a pretty serious role: We drive a long ways out here all the time -- it's a big region, and gas prices have been hammering us.

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Fort Collins, Colo.: Mr. Struckman, in 2004 I lived in Laramie, Wyo. When I spoke to folks there who supported George Bush, they often cited evidence that I considered spurious, such that as global warming was a conspiracy, that Saddam Hussein caused Sept. 11, or that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that the mainstream media was covering up. Do you see this sort of underground, talk-radio-fueled information as playing a role in the election this year here in the West?

Robert Struckman: Wow. I hear you. What's up with the people who think global warming might be a conspiracy?

I guess to answer this question right, I'd need to provide a lot of context and a passel of sociologists and others who could explain why people believe who they believe -- but first, the short answer. Yes, conspiracy theories and conservative talk radio play a huge role out here, although I really wouldn't be able to say whether they play a larger role here than in other parts of the country.

Let me just add, though, that many implicit social judgments cloud our rhetorical landscape. There are ideas that living in a trailer or hunting for big game connotes something about a person. For those who are thus pigeon-holed, it's easy to discount people who they feel are looking down on them. Does that make sense? I truly think that has something to do with the willingness of some people to embrace a political party that offers them a warm welcome, culturally. It's why Sarah Palin is so popular in some parts of the West, too. I'm all over the map on this one, and maybe out on a limb, too, but it's a great question, and one with huge importance in the West.

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Princeton, N.J.: Is Montana really in play? Seems hard to believe. If so, I'd better close my shutters to protect against the landslide.

Robert Struckman: Yes, Montana is in play, if by that you mean that Obama has a chance here. I think he does, although I doubt he'll win the state's three electoral votes.

What's new is that Montana is even a question, and that a presidential candidate has campaigned here as much as Obama has. Obama's field offices have registered thousands of new voters and has helped energize lots of young Democrats, especially in Montana's cities and on its seven Indian reservations. I think we'll be feeling the effects of this election for years to come.

But as for Obama's chances here? Well, I'd have to say that Ron Paul is his best hope. Paul is on the ballot here, and if he gets a sizable number of votes (Paul had far more votes than McCain in the Republican primary here), Obama could win. Still, I wouldn't worry about closing the shutters.

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Portland, Ore.: Personally I sense that these mountain states are becoming more "swing" than Democrat, meaning they no longer will be reliably Republican, but also are states the Democrats can't take for granted. Given that the federal government owns vast areas of the West, won't there still be tension between the environmentalists on the left and the people in these states who want economic development on these lands? Would you predict an Obama administration appointing someone from the West as Interior secretary?

Robert Struckman: That's a good point about the swing-ness. The fact that the mountain states are in contention is the news here, and I don't think Obama would have had much of a chance if he hadn't been campaigning so hard out here. It's really an amazing thing, and there's a sense among Democrats and Republicans in these states that this long-ignored section of the country might just get a little attention.

I have no idea who would be interior secretary. I think there will be plenty of tension between environmentalists and those who want economic development on public lands, and actually that's a significant point. One way that Democrats like Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have gained a majority is by pushing for energy development. I don't think it's a ploy -- Schweitzer's an energy nut through and through -- but I think it would be interesting to maybe look into the idea that environmentalists as a crucial constituency of the Democratic Party out here may begin to be taken for granted. (They might think they already are.)

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Washington: How is the Nevada's 3rd District looking? Can Obama's coattails knock down Porter?

Robert Struckman: Honestly, I don't know much about Nevada's 3rd, but one of the biggest questions across the region is how Obama's ground game will play out. In general, across the region, our races are small. There's not a lot of money spent on campaigns, compared to the races on the coasts. It's not uncommon, for instance, for Montana state races to cost only a few thousand dollars. This is a place where candidates walk door to door and post signs in yards. That means there are not a lot of resources for poll, so in many parts of the region we won't really know until Election Day. The presence -- or absence -- of Obama coattails will be one of day's big stories.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Much is being written about the increased Democratic support in the Western states. How much of this is driven by new voters who are Democrats moving into Western states, and how much of this is existing voters switching parties? For those switching parties, what are the issues that are driving these switches?

Robert Struckman: Not long ago I read a bit of news about Montana, and it focused on the influx of well-educated liberals and the out-migration of rural conservatives. I think that's a bunk bit of analysis. Voters aren't cord wood, stacked here and there, inanimately voting straight down the ticket for the Democratic or Republican slate. That said, clearly, people bring their opinions and political biases with them when they move, right? And the West has had a lot of demographic changes.

The tenor of politics on the ground, though, doesn't hold up, though. Northwest Montana and Gallatin County (where Big Sky is located), for instance, have seen huge population increases. Those are two of the most conservative parts of the state. Also, about 10 years ago when I was a reporter at the Gazette in Billings, I remember Democrats lamenting the influx of straight-ticket-voting Republicans from the Midwest.

I think education, the economy and a certain history of High Plains populism play a big role here. Another factor is the increased participation of Native voters. (That's a bigger factor in the states with sizable Native populations, clearly.) Democrats dramatically have improved their grassroots campaigning in the region, too.

In the end, though, I think a lot of this comes back to issues. You know, Republicans really jumped into the drivers seat in Montana about 16 years ago, and voters got to see what that felt like. Part of what's happening may be in reaction to that.

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Missoula, Mont.: Mr. Struckman, in your opinion, what do you think it is about the West that is vastly different this time around, and, as a result, is getting this region much more attention than ever before? I am sure there is more than one silver bullet, so feel free to suggest a few "its." My gut says folks like yourself -- who were raised in this region, moved away and then came back -- could be playing a roll. Perhaps it is also the "coming of voting-age" of the echo-boom, aka "Generation Y." These young voters, coupled with the rising interest in Web 2.0 (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are certainly an influence. My examples seem quite obvious. What are you thoughts?

Robert Struckman: That's an interesting question. There may be something in the generation -- and you're clearly right about me -- that left for college or work or both and then returned. That's a phenomenon that's happening across the region, as well as in the Midwest.

Recently I was talking to former Montana Rep. Pat Williams (a Democrat) about the state's populist history. I mention that point all the time, because there's this notion away from places like Montana that out here we are monolithically conservative -- culturally, politically and economically -- and that's just not true. Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote. Montana was right up there, third, I think, after New York. If you look at Montana's constitution from the 1972 convention, you'll see it's this amazingly progressive document. It's really incredible. And it wasn't written in a closet by a few long-haired radicals. I think that latent spirit has been gaining strength in Montana -- and its sibling spirits have been growing in other places in the West.

Otherwise, I'd say gas prices have made a big difference. The economy in general has got people scared. The tough talk of the Republicans is wearing some people out, I think. And the increasing "big brother" role of the Bush administration has pushed some conservatives away from the Republican Party.

All that said, I don't think the West is vastly different that it has been in the past. It's more of an incremental change we're seeing, I think.

Hmmmm. .... Kind of a soft and inarticulate answer. Shoot.

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Re: Western Swing States: Isn't the real issue that the increasingly Southern-based Republican Party is out-of-place in a more libertarian West?

Robert Struckman: That very well may be the case. The West certainly has a broad Libertarian streak -- the federal identification card, for instance, was hugely unpopular here. And I don't know that a strong connection to a certain brand of Christianity goes over well here, either, although I know it does for a certain segment of the population.

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Former Montanan: Interesting article in The Post today about voters in Central Montana. I think the lack of diversity there is something people on the left and right coast don't quite understand. When I moved to Washington from Missoula, no one could believe that from the time I was in kindergarten to the time I graduated from high school, I only went to school with two black students (and each was only there for about a year). So thoughts about race really are different just because of a lack of direct experience with people of different backgrounds/races. Do you think Montana could go blue this election? I know my friends in Zoo City seem to think so, but Missoula always has been the most liberal place in the state...

Robert Struckman: I was just reading the news story you're referring to, and I have to say that this is something I've thought about a bit. There may be some truth to this idea that it's easier not to be prejudiced against a group that doesn't have a large local presence.

For instance, in Billings (Montana's largest town) in the early 1990s, there was a flare up of anti-Semitism, and the whole town rallied around its Jewish residents. The newspaper printed images of a menorah, and houses up and down all the streets posted them in windows in a heart-warming show of solidarity. It was awesome.

That's the town, I should add, where I went to high school. It's also a town with a significant Native population. I never was taught by an Indian school teacher, never was waited on by an Indian waitress or waiter, never had my groceries bagged by a Native clerk in a grocery store. Indians literally were shut out of all kinds of occupations. I think it's shameful.

And that prejudice was not solely the province of so-called conservative towns like Billings -- racism against Indians is a fact in non-Indian circles across Montana, including Missoula. That has changed a lot in the past 15 years or so, but it remains an issue we only recently have begun to address in a meaningful way in the state. I can remember thinking then -- and lately -- that it was easier for Billings to do the right thing with regard to a tiny minority than with the larger minority.

But will that factor make a difference in Montana's election? I don't know. I think the days are gone when most Montana voters don't have experience with black people. Most Montana voters aren't in the little town on The Post story's byline. Obama may well win Yellowstone County (where Billings is). It's Montana's most urban town, and it has a small but definitely distinct black community.

So, to wrap up the answer: Montana could go for Obama. My prediction is that it'll be really, really close, but in the end will go for McCain -- not because Obama's black, but because Montana tends to play it conservative on presidential elections.

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Denver: What's your prediction for Colorado? It's feeling pretty blue at the moment, but I live in Denver and work in Boulder.

Robert Struckman: I think Colorado will continue to trend toward the Democratic Party, and likely will go for Obama.

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Laramie, Wyo.: Wyoming still will go for the Republicans, but there's a lot of support for Obama (in Laramie at least). There's much more excitement for him than we saw in 2004 for Kerry. I am very interested to see what the numbers look like here.

Robert Struckman: I think you're right about Wyoming probably going for McCain/Palin. Obama has lit the West, though, no doubt, and Wyoming's no exception. Earlier in the season, I heard Wyoming's governor as he stumped for Obama in the Democratic primary at an event in Montana. Obama was country before country was cool, he said. I think that basic idea really has made the West's day, so to speak. Obama's presence across the region has invigorated a lot of voters who felt like the national elections never have been about them. I agree that it'll be fascinating to watch the results. For a lot of people in the Mountain West, it feels good to be courted.

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Western Palin: How is the West reacting to the selection of Palin, up or down?

Robert Struckman: It's mixed, I think. I think Sarah Palin's truly small-town roots and her strong cultural conservatism and Christianity really have got some people rooting for her -- but on the other hand, her inexperience has hurt her among a broad segment of the population. I don't think she really has helped McCain much out here, in that those who like her already would have gone for the Republican ticket.

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Yet...: Montana's Democratic governor stole the show one evening during the convention. How's his political future looking?

Robert Struckman: Great question. He really did steal the show, but I don't think he's the next Obama. It seems to me that to really flourish on the national stage, a candidate has to be extremely disciplined and polished, and I frankly don't think Brian Schweitzer has that. But what do I know? Not long ago I talked to Schweitzer's predecessor, Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican. She said voters often say they want an unpolished candidate, someone who will speak from the heart and not offer sound bites, but in reality they do want that polish, and a controlled message. I think she's right, and I think Schweitzer would be the first to say that he hates working from teleprompters and staying on message.

That said, would he take some post in an Obama administration, especially in four years? (Schweitzer is running for his second term this year, and it seems to me that he loves being governor of Montana and wouldn't give it up for love or money.) I doubt he'll run for the Senate, but he could. I bet he'd love to be an ambassador to someplace like Saudi Arabia, but that's just my own pet conjecture.

But no, you're not going to see Schweitzer on a national ticket. Blam. I'll go ahead and stick to that prediction.

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Robert Struckman: Thanks, all, for the questions. What an interesting forum. I'm signing off. I'll be back on late on Election Day next week for another round.

Earlier I was reading some of the other conversations on washingtonpost.com and saw Paul Kane using the baseball season as a metaphor. Pretty apt, I'm sure, across most of the nation. For me? I'm thinking all the time about the big-game hunting season, which opened on Sunday.

I won't bore you all with the stories I'm telling and retelling anyone who'll listen around here -- about my hunting foray on Sunday when I saw that beautiful cow elk puffing clouds of breath into the frosty air amid the thick pines on a ridge top not far from Missoula -- but ... wait, what was my point? (I don't know if you can tell, but I'm looking forward to getting out there on foot in the mountains this weekend. Right? It's about free-range organic meat, and honestly getting it yourself...) Oh yeah: Why is all this relevant? I think it's worth asking if the era of the single-issue cultural conservative may be waning. Heck, I might be wrong, but it's worth considering.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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