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Politically and Otherwise, the Mountain West Swings

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, August 02, 2012

When the sun goes down, the new Mountain West comes out swinging. Denver's Larimer Square and LoDo (Lower Downtown) district turns into a multicultural Mixmaster of educated professionals, ordinary folk and tourists jamming bars, hamburger joints, steak palaces and French bistros. Meanwhile, armies of largely Spanish-speaking immigrants work the kitchens and vacuum the deserted offices. For all the legends of the spacious West, the region is one of the most urbanized.

And it is getting more so, which is why once-dependably Republican Colorado is in the "leaning who-knows-where" category in the upcoming election. Similar demographic trends are visiting Nevada and New Mexico. And although Arizona remains Republican, that could change, as well.

An influx of newcomers has "raised educational levels, replaced older with younger generations and powered the rise of metropolitan areas where the overwhelming majority of the Mountain West population now lives." So writes Ruy Teixeira in "America's New Swing Region: Changing Politics and Demographics in the Mountain West," published by the Brookings Institution.

The Democrats hope a growing coalition of white college graduates and immigrants will deliver Colorado to Barack Obama. Recent polls show the president and Republican Mitt Romney tied. For the record, registered voters in Colorado split evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The demographic changes are certainly a wind at the Democrats' back. From 2000 to 2010, minorities' share of eligible Colorado voters rose nearly 3 percent. Working-age college graduates gained 2 percent. In the same period, the portion of eligible white voters who did not graduate from college -- a group generally favorable to Republicans -- fell almost 6 percent.

The problem for Republicans here goes beyond the new arrivals' tendency to vote for Democrats. It is a Republican Party that has moved away from the Western kind of conservatism, which is strongly libertarian (government stay out of our lives), to a social conservatism, which is strongly not.

Also, the environmentalism of even traditional conservatives in this physically magnificent region ought not be underestimated. Many meat-eating, tax-cutting and regulation-slashing entrepreneurial types moved here precisely to be near the skiing and natural beauty. They might have felt comfortable in the party of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, but nationally, today's Republicans have largely abandoned the conservation ethic.

You see that inner conflict in places like Arapahoe County, one of the most politically unpredictable counties in this up-for-grabs state. Southeast of Denver, Arapahoe is home to many comfortably middle-class professionals in the tech, insurance and other white-collar industries. Such voters seem torn by concern over quality-of-life issues and discomfort at what some perceive as anti-business rhetoric by the president. What they do at the polls on Nov. 6 is anybody's guess, but these are the sort of people who show up.

The candidates' strategies follow the demographic realities. Romney has been avoiding metro Colorado while campaigning in the still staunchly Republican rural eastern counties and Grand Junction on the Western slope. Obama is all over the Front Range Urban Corridor, which includes (north to south) Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

After the horrific theater massacre in Aurora, both candidates officially suspended campaigning. Romney surrogate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called off a planned visit. The Obama campaign temporarily halted advertising, though its claims to have stopped politicking did not entirely convince. Having already held a news conference to offer the nation's sympathies to the victims, Obama then flew to Colorado to personally comfort the victims' families, his motorcade passing through town.

In any event, both the Romney and Obama campaigns plan a return to normalcy this weekend. The volleys of political ads should be back, and the swinging new Mountain West will see little rest for the next 100 days.

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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