Taking on the Western mirage
Back in January, David Hill wrote at thehill.com about our recent wins in Colorado and Montana, pointing out that they might not be all we've been hyping it to be. if Hill is a Republican pollster (a Texan at that), so his piece has some interesting insights on Western Democrats, because its important to reflect on criticism.
His first point, that aside from a tinge of environmentalism, Western Democrats avoided the trappings of eastern liberalism, is a bit off base. The Western Democrats that were most successful didn't hang on to eastern, liberal, national environmentalism. Rather, they took on the greenness that a Westerner would like. Environmentalism so people can continue using the land, rather than separating people from it, most appeals to Westerners. This is a subtle difference for a Texan/easterner to pick up, but environmentalism for the environment's sake and environmentalism for the sake of us and our communities is very different from the nationally-based environmentalism that the Democrats have been beholden to.
Hill says another reason for success in 2002 and 2004 is that Democrats simply recruited better candidates:
Though I never see any public acknowledgement of the fact, Democrats simply recruited better candidates for many of the upset contests.
By “better,” I don’t mean candidates with more beguiling issue platforms. No, a superior candidate has better people skills and is just more likable. A better candidate also has a better work ethic, knocks on more doors, raises more money or writes more of his own checks. Candidate recruitment is a lost art in some climes, but it’s essential to electoral success.
This is a pretty heartening assessment for me, because it speaks to a level of party know-how in the region, to put up better candidates than dominant Republicans. If the Dems can find good candidates within their ranks and convince them to run, the Democratic Party in the West can't be in that bad of shape.
It also speaks to Coyote Factor of Western Democrats, as coined by Cecil Andrus:
"(Idaho) has elected Republicans so dumb they need to be watered, but any Democrat who hopes to stick around must have the adaptive skills of a coyote."
If Democrats have to be smarter and better to survive in the West, then we'll always have better candidates than Republicans.
Hill's next point is harder for me to grasp.
These new voters often don’t share the conservative values and issue agenda of natives. Two prominent groups of newcomers — Californians and Hispanic immigrants — best typify this trend. There is no denying that in-migration is changing the Western electorate, but the numbers and geographical distribution of new voters cannot alone explain the surprising 2002 and 2004 results.
Even if population shifts did account for the Democrats’ success, how happy could Democrats elsewhere be about this? There are only a limited number of California liberals available for export. There surely aren’t enough available to reverse the Democrats’ sorry situation in big states such as Texas and Florida.
Of course, he's a pollster and I'm not, but I disagree with these points.
He seem to be describing two factors. One, the rise of El Norte as a separate political region in the West, against the Coasts and especially Sagebrush. But, I'm not sure how many people are moving from Texas and Florida to the western portion of El Norte. From my understanding, El Norte is growing in Florida, south Texas and the Southwest all the way up to Colorado. I don't think western El Norte is stealing from Texas and Florida.
Also, the urbanization of the Sagebrush. This is even harder for me to take in. There may not be an endless stream of liberals from California and other parts of the country to send to moderately large cities in the interior West. But I think as these cities grow, from immigrants from both inside and outside of Sagebrush, they are more likely to vote Democratic simply because they are urban areas.
The Western Myth, which as served Republicans well in rural areas of the West, isn't believed so much in more urban, growing counties. Democrats, with more of their policies aimed at what government can do, as opposed to ending government, are better poised to pick up the urban Sagebrush vote. These urban centers will continue to grow, and with congressional and legislative district reform proportioning Western representation better in the past 30 years, these cities will grow in influence.
His last point points to an eventual swing back to Republicans in a few years, that whatever Party is in favor at the current time will eventually be seen as the establishment, and out of favor party, the party of the underdog.
The Rocky Mountain Democrats also tout their wooing of swing voters, particularly in small towns and rural areas. Watch the language carefully in these explanations. Some correctly identify these swing voters as “unaffiliated” (the official designation in Colorado) rather than independent. There is a big difference between an “unaffiliated” voter and one who’s “independent.” The former is more of a populist outsider, while the latter is more of an intellectual insider.
Westerners are cognitively closer to unaffiliated. Rural voters in parts of the West resent the power of insiders whether they be in Denver or Washington, D.C.
So Western Democrats, enjoy your time in the statehouse. Now that you’re the insiders, they’ll soon be coming for you.
In Montana, where Schweitzer was able to paint his opponent with the "bought" Judy Martz brush, this at least seemed to be the case. This point is an especially good one to take to heart. One of the problems Republicans have been facing in the West is that they are seen as the establishment party. It would be hard for a dominant party not to be seen this way, but where they've really screwed up is when they put on in several layers, the trappings of power. This is where you end up with Governor Martz.
Your Personal Note:
Great stuff, Emmett. I think it's clear this guy is grasping for straws where there are none.
Sure, California has a limited number of people to export, but 1) it doesn't take much to tip an election; after all, even in hard-core red states, the vote is often in the 54-46 range.
Also, 2) part of the phenomenon is that these Western states are keeping people home that, in another era, would have left to go to California. For example, with a burgeoning tech industry, Colorado is hanging on to the sort of educated, techie, progressive outdoorsy folks that 20 years ago would have fled to San Diego or San Francisco or Malibu. Today, they're in Boulder, Golden, or Cherry Creek. Hey, they call it the "Denver Tech Center" for a reason.
Posted by: Kari Chisholm | Apr 11, 2005 9:24:31 AM
I think Hill is right about Western states recruiting better candidates, but wrong to write it off as simply as simply several unrelated instances. Democrats are fomenting a region-wide populist image, which creates the context in which "better" candidates emerge.
Posted by: Patton Price | Apr 11, 2005 1:56:50 PM
I hope you're right about "Democrats fomenting a region-wide populist image." I have long thought Democrats better represented the actual values of the citizens of the rural west.
We've just suffered from bad PR that ties us to Ted Kennedy and Earth First. To the extent that we can make our stances and issues clear, I think we will succeed.
It sounds like you see an improvement in the Democratic image. That's all we really need.
Posted by: Bert Lowry | Apr 11, 2005 3:06:18 PM
We've got to forge those changes ourselves, but it's doable. We have to at least show up, though. For instance, people talk about how Dems lost the gay marriage "battle," but I don't think they ever even showed up to fight. I think rural voters would respect them more if they had clearly taken unpopular positions rather than evading and equivocating.
Posted by: Patton Price | Apr 11, 2005 6:49:12 PM
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(and yes, we know that sometimes they're very, very wrong. Other times, they're right on.)