Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where the Race Will Be Won, Part 3

With the Democratic Convention in Denver, we can’t fail to do a post on Colorado and its role in the campaign. The New Yorker just posted a fantastic overview of Colorado politics—focusing on the Democratic gains of recent years—by Ryan Lizza.

Rather than devote this post to the entire state—and I will devote more time to Colorado over the coming weeks—I wanted to make note of one particular part that may prove important in November. The other night, amidst all the droning of commentators during the convention coverage, Chuck Todd pointed to Pueblo as the one city he will be looking to as key. I thought I’d take a look at its recent history and demographics.

Pueblo is unusual when compared to most other western cities in that it has a long industrial history, centered around steel production. Lizza quotes Jim Carpenter, Governor Bill Ritter’s Chief of Staff who calls Pueblo “a rare sort of Western city whose politics are closer to those of a Rust Belt state than to those of the Rockies. It’s an old traditional blue-collar type of place. There were ethnic politics in Pueblo, blue collar politics. It was like Milwaukee. There was the Hispanic part of town, and the Italian part of town, and the Eastern European part of town.” The interesting thing about Pueblo is that it’s not only so different from the rest of the state but that it seems to be on a different trajectory. Whereas other Colorado cities are diversifying and thriving in the areas of green energy, the tech sector, and tourism/hospitality, Pueblo appears somewhat rooted in a more anachronistic economy. Nonetheless, given that it is still home to a sizable population (slightly over 100,000) its vote could prove crucial.

Demographically, Pueblo County is about 57% white and 38% Hispanic. Unlike some Hispanic communities that are filled with recent immigrants, the Hispanic community in this region tends to be multi-generational in its residence. This rootedness is personified in Democratic Congressman John Salazar whose family has farmed in the area for decades (he is also the brother of the state’s junior Senator, Ken Salazar). Given its working class population, the Pueblo area has been solidly Democratic in recent elections. Pueblo County last voted Republican at the presidential level in 1972. However, in 2004, Bush did better in the county (46%) than any Republican nominee since Reagan in 1984 so there has been some tightening.

One wonders whether this movement rightward has been a reflexive action in response to the leftward movement of other parts of the state. If so, this dynamic could prove troublesome to Obama. In this sense, the comparison of Pueblo to many Rust Belt cities would seem apt. As we saw in this year’s primary campaign, those areas hardest hit by the past decade’s economic changes (Ohio, Michigan) have proven to be resistant to—or at least more skeptical of--Obama’s post-materialist message. While he is certainly moving in a more populist direction, this rhetoric threatens to diminish his appeal to more independent and upscale voters. As Lizza’s portrait of Colorado makes clear, these voters’ (upscale, highly educated, pragmatic) numbers are growing dramatically, not just in Colorado but throughout the west. Thus, a quandary—how does one thread the needle of attracting both old style, blue collar voters and upscale progressives?? A dilemma like this can turn a campaign in knots.

While the Obama campaign is trying to craft a strategy to solve this riddle nationwide, we’re also seeing it played out at the more micro-level within Colorado itself. What’s fascinating is that the underlying mathematics and demographics are so precarious. So many states and regions would seem to be on the tipping point of this transition from one type of economy and politics to another—Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina for example (a process that forms the basis of The Emerging Democratic Majority). The degree to which Obama is successful in navigating these straits will go a long way in telling us who the next President will be.

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