vision 2020

Will the Mountain West Become Pivotal in Future Elections?

Denver is at the center of a Mountain West region some consider the Next Big Thing in politics. Photo: David Zalubowski/AP/

Over time different parts of the country draw national attention for having a disproportionate impact on the country’s political present and future. Sometimes it’s because they contribute a lot of powerful Beltway figures, as the South with its focus on congressional seniority did for many decades. And sometimes it’s because of a region’s sheer electoral heft, particularly when it contains a significant number of highly competitive presidential “battleground” states.

This latter factor, and the enormous role the region played in 2016, has made the Rust Belt, or the Heartland or the Upper Midwest — depending on your definition and the label you choose — the “It” region for many political folk going into 2020. Trump’s wins in almost-always-Democratic Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were crucial, and he also won previously very-competitive states like Iowa and Ohio by big margins, while running relatively well in Minnesota.

So the battle for leverage in these same states is naturally going to be a major focus in the next presidential general election: already the 2020 Democratic nomination contest is being heavily influenced by perceptions of candidates’ strength there. And it’s no coincidence that next year’s Democratic National Convention is being held in Milwaukee.

Pols in other regions are naturally jealous of this attention, and are offering counter-arguments to the supposition that power is concentrated in the nation’s hollowed-out, one-time manufacturing center. There’s a whole Democratic sunbelt strategy focused on flipping Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina in 2020. And some Republicans think their party could expand its base outside the Rust Belt in various ways. GOP strategist Liz Mair, however, took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to argue that it’s the Mountain West that’s the Next Big Thing in national politics, perhaps for both parties:

The Mountain West, long a second (or third) thought to the favorite-son, vote-rich Rust Belt states, is stepping, however lightly, into the limelight. Several Mountain West Democrats have jumped into the presidential race (from Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Senator Michael Bennet) or are readying themselves to do so (Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, and perhaps others). The Democratic Party has hopes that Arizona, which as John McCain used to observe is about the only state where mothers cannot in good faith tell their kids they can grow up to be president, will move into the Democratic column next year.

Not ceding any ground, President Trump’s re-election campaign has decreed that a trio of Mountain West blue states — Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — are “flippable” in 2020.

I’d note that none of the three Mountain West Democratic presidential candidates (not sure who the “perhaps others” might be) is looking very competitive right now. Sure, Arizona’s going to be a battleground, but as noted above, it figures prominently in a competing regional configuration, and is also arguably as much as “southwest” as a “Mountain West” state. And it’s not entirely clear whether Team Trump’s designs on Democratic-trending Colorado and New Mexico — which Hillary Clinton won by eight points and Obama won twice by double-digit margins — are realistic.

More generally, the entire Mountain West region presently has only 47 electoral votes, eight less than California alone, and far less than the Rust Belt’s 111.

Now as Mair points out, the Mountain West is growing at the expense of other regions:

It won’t matter too much next year; the 2020 census needs to happen before Electoral College votes shift and the Mountain West gains some political dominance.

According to Census Bureau data from July 2017 to July 2018, many of the fastest-growing United States counties are in Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Among those losing population are in Appalachia, the Rust Belt region as well as some Mississippi River-bordering and Great Plains areas.

Per Pew Trusts, of the 10 states gaining population the fastest, five are in the Mountain West. The fastest-growing state is Utah, but also among the top 10 are Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and Arizona. West Virginia and Illinois are losing population, while other Rust Belt and Northeastern states are growing comparatively slowly. Among the 10 states with the most declining, or slowest-growing, populations are Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut as well as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even a recent United Van Lines survey shows the same general trend.

Rapid growth from a small population base, however, only gets you so far. An estimate of post-2020-Census electoral votes doesn’t show anything like “political dominance.” The Mountain West is expected to pick up 3 EVs for 2024, for a total of 50. A generous estimate of EVs in competitive Mountain West states in 2024 is 33. By comparison, the South Atlantic region running from Florida to Virginia will have 85 EVs, 76 of them in competitive states. If you were a cold-hearted electoral tactician, which region would you value more?

Now it’s possible that a region can punch above its weight as a sort of politico-cultural trend-setter, as California was once thought to be. Back in the early years of this century, influential blogger Markos Moulitsas argued that the Mountain West was incubating some sort of wave-of-the-future breed of Libertarian Democrats. If so, it’s a long time a-birthing.

For the time being, it’s likely that Mountain West folk will continue to accommodate themselves to the two major national parties rather than forcing Democrats and Republicans to cater to their own tastes and needs. I’m sure open spaces full of natural beauty will offer plenty of compensation.

Will the Mountain West Become Pivotal in Future Elections?