How the West Was Lost


Two regions in this election contain a disproportionate number of
battleground states: the Rust Belt (including Pennsylvania,
Ohio, Michigan,
Indiana, and Wisconsin)
and the Interior West (Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada).
On that score, each candidate would seem to have a home-region advantage, with
Barack Obama representing Illinois in the
heart of the Rust Belt region, and John McCain Arizona in the Interior West.

Studies have proven
the presence of a strong “friends and neighbors” effect in a candidate’s home
state: They tend to outperform their demographics among voters who know them
the best. There is also some evidence that this advantage carries over to the
regional level, particularly in the South and in New
England, if the candidate has a grasp on the concerns and the ways
of thinking most common to the voters in his region.

Obama has lived up to his end of the bargain, winning in essentially every
state that borders the Land
of Lincoln. In Iowa,
which John Kerry lost in 2004, but where Obama's victory in the state's January
caucuses made his campaign viable, there have been 27 public polls
released since the first of the year; Barack Obama has led 26 of them, and was
tied with McCain in the other. In Wisconsin,
a state that went to Kerry by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2004, Obama has led four of the last
five polls
by double digits. In Indiana,
which hasn't voted Democratic since 1964, Obama has drawn the race to a dead
heat. Missouri
was on the verge of losing its bellwether status after John Kerry ceded it by
seven points, but is now back in the toss-up column, with some recent polling
trending toward Obama. 

But John McCain, by contrast, has made little progress in the West beyond
his home state of Arizona.
He now trails Obama in Nevada,
and New
, all three of which went to George Bush in 2004. In spite of early
from his campaign that he would fight for Washington,
Oregon, and perhaps even California, he never eroded Obama's
advantage along the Pacific coast, and is no longer trying. Obama has even led in
a few polls in Western states as far-flung as North Dakota,
and--before Sarah Palin's entry into the race—a poll in Alaska. The region that had
once appeared to harbor the most potential for McCain might now contain the
states that tip the balance of the election toward Obama. 

Why is McCain performing so poorly in his own backyard? In part, he is
fighting a Sisyphean battle against the demographic changes in the region. The
Census Bureau measures how many people migrate into each state each year. In
2006, half
of the top ten fastest-growing states were in the West
, ranging from Nevada (3.5 percent) to Colorado (1.9 percent). These new residents
generally fall into one of two categories: college-educated white folks from
the coasts looking for cheaper housing, better schools, or a higher quality of
life--or, Latinos. Both groups are quite friendly to Democrats. 

Still, McCain's politics may also be partly to blame. For one thing, McCain
is perceived largely as an insider--the Senator from Washington (D.C.) rather
than the Senator from Arizona.
The West--particularly the Mountain West--does not like Washington establishment candidates.
Consider, for instance, that Bill Clinton--running as an outsider in 1992--won
, and came within single digits of George Bush in states like
Wyoming and Alaska. By 1996, however, when his incumbency had transformed him
into an insider by default, Clinton lost Montana, and was crushed in Wyoming
and Alaska by
and 18 points
, respectively. 

McCain may also have gotten off to a bad footing in the West because of his
hawkish stance on foreign policy. Between the Ron Paul-ish isolationist
elements evident in the rural reaches of the West--the region was by far Paul's best for
fundraising on a per-capita basis--and the neo-hippie culture still apparent in
places like Boulder, Colorado, and Santa Fe, the West has relatively little
appetite for foreign entanglements. Exit polls in 2004 revealed that 28 percent
of voters in Oregon, 23
percent in Colorado, 21
percent in Nevada, and 20
percent in New Mexico listed
the war in Iraq
as their most important voting issue, and that these voters went for John Kerry
about 3:1. By contrast, just 15
of voters in the country as a whole listed Iraq as the issue that decided
their vote. 

has also managed to wind up on the wrong side of a number of the West's
peculiar pet issues. He had
been a supporter
of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, and has previously called
to renegotiate the Colorado River compact, which might result in diverting some
of Colorado's water to Arizona
and California.
McCain won the grudging endorsement
of the NRA, but doesn't have the Second Amendment bona fides to win many votes
on the issue. (He recently
a C+ from the group and an F from the Gun Owners of America.) He
seems to satisfy precisely nobody on immigration, having lost the trust of
conservatives with his support of the McCain-Kennedy bill in 2006, but then
losing Hispanics when he backtracked on the issue during the Republican

Lastly, McCain's campaign is simply being outhustled. In Colorado,
for instance, the McCain campaign has opened 12 field offices to Obama’s 47; in New Mexico the ratio is
15 to 38. Because so many voters in the West are emigrants from elsewhere in
the country (just 12
of Nevada
voters in 2004 were native to the state), identifying and tagging one’s voters
is at a premium; relying on voter lists from four years ago won't do. This is
bad news for McCain, who has placed less emphasis on turnout than perhaps any campaign in
recent memory. 

Things could be worse for McCain; he at least appears to have Arizona and its ten
electoral votes locked down (a state which, had McCain not been from there, could
have easily wound up in the Obama column). Montana, which was competitive
over the summer, bounced over to McCain following the Republican convention,
and is among the few states yet to bounce back to Obama. 

But while Mitt Romney was referring to McCain when he said at the Republican
convention that “if America
really wants change, it's time to look for the sun in the West,” McCain’s
region looks likely to deliver the election to Obama.

Nate Silver is the founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, a political website, and a contributor to The
New Republic.

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