Volumes have been written in the past few years about the angry West -- about sagebrush rebellions, about an alienated region on the verge of becoming as Republican as the Old South was Democratic, about a new Mason-Dixon Line being drawn north-south at the hundredth meridian that stretches down through the western Dakotas and into Texas.
All of this is easily reinforced by a quick glance at the electoral map of 1976. Jimmy Carter's narrow victory that year included Texas, but from there the map turned solidly Republican all the way out to the little Democratic outpost of Hawaii with its four electoral votes.
While the rebellion stories are relatively new, however, the electoral story is not.
Excluding the abberration of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide, the Republican strangehold on the West reaches back 28 years -- and its magnitude rivals the Solid South in its totality. With the exception of Texas, which has swung back and forth, the 18 other western states have yielded a total of only 27 electoral votes to Democratic candidates in six of the last seven elections. This is an average of 4 1/2 votes out of the 128 these growing states now hold.
California, the West's presidential bonanza, with 45 electoral votes, has remained out of reach of every Democrat except Johnson for the past 28 years. rWashington state, a labor stronghold with two Democratic senators, a Democratic governor and six Democratic congressmen out of its seven-person total, went to Johnson and Hubert Humphrey but has steered clear of all other Democrats except Harry Truman.
Arizona, a booming sun country state that adds electoral votes with each census, has voted Republican in seven consecutive elections. Only Hawaii, hardly a sagebrush state, has bucked the trend -- going Democratic in three of the five elections since it became a state.
The reasons behind the emergence of this modern Republican monolith are not always easy to fathom.
Two-thirds of the Western states' governors are Democrats. So are the mayors of most of its major cities. And the region continues to send more than its share of powerful Democratic leaders back to Congress, although many of those leaders -- Magnuson and Foley of Washington, Church of Idaho, Ullman of Oregon, Udall of Arizona, among others -- are unusually nervous this year.
And the West is anything but monolithic. The Northwest is a green garden that uses its congressional clout to protect its abundant water -- the lifeblood of the West -- from its parched neighbors. California is a playpen with a value system almost as alien to Montana as the values handed down by distant Washington, D.C.
In 1980, the West is a dry water hole for Jimmy Carter -- a desert so forbidding amd empty of hope he is campaigning as if he doesn't govern it and can't touch it.
On westward journeys, Air Force One puts down in the Midwest or the great battleground of Texas -- a state no Democrat in this century has lost and still gone to the White House. Then the president's plane lifts up high over the sagebrush west for a 1,500-mile nonstop flight to the other world of the Pacific Coast, which, despite its history, still holds an allure to Democratic candidates.
The campaign strategy is troubling many already alienated westerners and has some of them wondering if the presidential snub won't intensify the West's simmering anger toward both Washington and future Democrats.
"People don't travel through the West, they fly over it," says Phil Burgess, director of the Western Governors' Policy Office in Denver. "Now the president is doing the same thing and it reinforces everything westerners feel about Carter and, perhaps more importantly, about the federal government.
"This kind of fly-over campaign--treating us like colonists and not too benevolently at that -- has a lingering effect that could last long beyond the election."
Here, in the not-so-always-so-splendid isloation of Montana's state capital, Democratic Gov. Thomas L. Judge believes it is the hostility toward Washington, more than a hostility towards Democrats, that holds the diverse West together in presidential elections.
Judge, who was defeated in a Democratic primary this year, is no Jimmy Carter fan. But he sees a federal government out of control, Democrats indelibly identified with it, and Carter held hostage by it.
"If Reagan were in the White House and Carter were challenging him this year," Judge said, "I'm not so sure Carter would lose Montana. It's Washington that is bugging us and Carter that represents Washington."
Like all western governors, Judge can reel off a list of federal bureaucracy horror stories that makes Reagan's anti-Washington one-liners sound mild by comparison.
A year ago, Montana came close to running out of diesel fuel -- a shortage that would have stopped the state's grain harvest, shut down much of its industry and wreaked havoc everywhere, Judge said.
"I worked all summer, fussing with Washington bureaucrats," Judge said, "and you know who finally saved our cookies? The federal government of Canada, not the federal government of the United States. I worked out a trade with the Canadian national energy office."
Judge and other western governors, already feeling isolated and outnumbered, bridle angrily at Amtrak cutbacks and even at administration-backed airline deregulation which has led to sharply reduced service to the West's smaller cities.
Helena may be the most isolated capital in the continential United States.
Amtrak still runs through northern Montana, "which is nice for easterners who want to see Glacier National Park," Judge said caustically. But service to almost all the state's major cities has been eliminated. No air service connects Helena with Montana cities such as Great Falls and Butte. s
Judge finds a sour irony in this. He sits in a state capital on the edge of America's biggest intercontinental missile fields -- squadrons of buried Minuteman missiles making his state a bastion of American defense and also a prime target for a Soviet attack.
Yet Helena's only real transportation link to the outside is the interstate highway, a system that originally was planned partly as a defense highway, with the law requiring that it connect state capitals. It was authorized back in the days when state captials still had some importance, Judge said wryly, and also at just about the time the West began turning into a Republican monolith.
Other problems hold the diverse West together against the federal government, and indirectly, national Democrats. Over half the land in the Far West is federally owned, the states want it back and this has made states' rights a rallying cry here with at least as much fervor, without the implied racism, that it had in the South.
At the National Governors' Conference in August, Arizona's Democratic governor, Bruce Babbitt, described himself as "a committed liberal" and "an unapologetic Democrat" before launching into an angry attack on "a federal system in complete disarray" that "has lost all sense of restraint."
Judge described western feelings even more succinctly: "The biggest joke in Montana is: 'I'm from the federal government; I'm here to help you.' If you want a good laugh, just try that one anywhere."
The feeling is pervasive throughout the West -- a region that, as Burgess put it, is expected to provide "the nation's security in production, energy independence and military deterrence."
"The West is proud of that and wants to provide all three. But, frankly, we're feeling raped and abandoned," he said.
When Reagan visits little Rocky Mountain towns like Grand Junction, Colo. -- the towns Air Force One flies high above -- he is greeted by placards that plead both: "Take Our Shale Oil" and "Don't Forget Us."
Carter flies over all that, hoping to overwhelm it with the more densely populated half of the country east of the hundredth meridian.
Burgess, a onetime political science professor from Ohio State who understands short-term political realities as well as anyone, nevertheless is betting the strategy will contribute to a burden that Democratic presidential nominees could carry around for years to come. It is a legacy, not all Carter's doing, that could place future Republicans halfway to the presidency before they are away from the starting line.