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New Mexico’s Unusual Demographics Shape Campaigns’ Strategies

October 13, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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In this first spotlight segment on New Mexico, the NewsHour examines election issues in the Land of Enchantment as the race between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama nears its end. Political analysts discuss local campaign tactics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on what’s driving voters here, we are joined by Christine Sierra. She’s a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

And Joe Monahan, he’s author of the nonpartisan political blog “New Mexico Politics with Joe Monahan.”

Thank you both for being with us.

And, Joe Monahan, I’m going to start with you. You just heard Ray Suarez’s report. Where do you think New Mexico’s almost, what is it, 1.2 million registered voters are today?

JOE MONAHAN, Political Blogger: Well, this is a great bellwether state. We usually pick the winner. It looks like it’s trending Obama’s way. The economic situation, as we all know, has drastically changed the picture of this election nationally. And that, of course, includes New Mexico.

Maybe what terrorism was to the 2004 election, the big issue, that’s what economic security is to the 2008 election. And it’s being felt across America and across New Mexico.

Maybe the economic bump, Judy, not quite as intense because of the big government base, as Ray pointed out in his setup piece, but definitely this is the pall, the shadow over this election, and it is helping Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christine Sierra, what would you add to that? Where do you see the race right now?

CHRISTINE SIERRA, University of New Mexico: Well, it’s still competitive. Obama is running about 4 or 5 points ahead of McCain, but there’s still some undecided voters out there.

I would second what Joe was saying about the economy. And I would say that the — the economic meltdown and people concerned about that is also filtering down to some very competitive open races and seats for the congressional candidates.

And so one surprising thing is that, in conservative Congressional District 2, which is down south in our state, the Democratic candidate is running just a little bit ahead of the Republican candidate.

I think that also is a reflection of just the general climate of the times and people’s concerns.

Economy playing a big role

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you -- let's talk about the economy for just a second, though, Joe Monahan, because, as you pointed out, a lot of government jobs here. That insulates people from the -- from the harsh winds of this economic situation. But you also have a higher than usual poverty rate in this state. Help us understand how that's affecting people's mood.

JOE MONAHAN: Well, in New Mexico, the economic engine is Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Las Cruces, the three cities. But outside of those are hundreds of thousands of people who reside -- and these gasoline prices, for example, are really hurting in rural areas, Judy, where people have to drive a long distance.

There's also a lot of small businesses in this state. This is not a big manufacturing state with companies like IBM or Microsoft. So it is being felt.

Even the government employees who have their keyhole plans and their IRAs are also feeling it. But this state does have a big poverty problem.

And the problem here is we didn't fully participate in the boom years, and we're going to take a hit on the bust.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christine Sierra, what -- in addition to the economy, you and I were just talking -- there are other issues at play here.

CHRISTINE SIERRA: There are. They are related to the economy, as well, though, certainly health care issues, the concern with health care, concern with education, and also still the war in Iraq.

So many of the New Mexican families, as well as some of our major ethnic groups, Hispanics and Native Americans, so many of them are involved with the military, have members in the military, or are employed in defense-related industry, which is quite prominent here in the state.

So there's still very much of a keen interest in what our U.S. policy is going to be with regards to war and the fight against terrorism.

In '04, it worked very well in George Bush's favor, who argued, "Stay the course. Re-elect me." But this time, I think the political landscape is so different. And I think people really do tie the war to the economy, in regards to wanting their family members home, having served three or four tours of duty, but also the money that we're spending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Social issues playing much of a role here?

JOE MONAHAN: You know, the Republicans are trying to make them -- gun control, down south, where they're hitting Obama on that and hitting some of the congressional candidates.

You know, social issues like gay marriage and abortion were big issues in the 2004 race, where John Kerry did not perform well among Hispanic Catholics in New Mexico.

But now the Obama people think the economy is so big that these social issues are becoming second-tier and they can dominate the Hispanic vote and get over this problem of turnout with the Hispanic base by emphasizing the economy.

It's sad news, this economy, but it's good political news, I think, for the Democrats up in the northern part of the state.

Campaigns looking for Hispanic vote

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Christine Sierra, what would you add to that, the Hispanic vote? Because it did go for George W. -- 44 percent for George W. Bush, I believe, in 2004.

CHRISTINE SIERRA: Yes, well, that means still, though, a majority went for John Kerry.


CHRISTINE SIERRA: But two things. I do think that, for single-issue voters for whom abortion was important, abortion was what they voted on. But I really don't think that carried the day. I do think it was kind of "stay the course" on defense and the war.

I would add, though, that other issues, like immigration, even though it's not mentioned by the political adds of the candidates on English-language TV, is very much there in Spanish-language television.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, how do you explain that?

CHRISTINE SIERRA: Because the campaigns have finally figured out that the Hispanic vote is not monolithic and that there is a foreign-born population, although it's much smaller here in New Mexico than in other states.

But there is a Spanish-speaking population. And for them, the immigration issue is not an abstraction. They have family members of various statuses of citizenship, non-citizenship and undocumented.

And so that issue, what happens to them and their family members, really, is important. And both campaigns are actually blaming the other for the lack of immigration reform.

Undecideds could decide it

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Monahan, let's come back, Joe Monahan, to those undecided voters. I think the last poll by the Albuquerque Journal had it at something like 14 percent, 15 percent.

Where do you see that going? And help us understand anything more you can tell us about the efforts of these two campaigns and the organization here.

JOE MONAHAN: Well, this is a big turnout game now. And New Mexico is a majority Democratic state. Obama has field offices, maybe three dozen of them, all over the state. He is trying to pump up that Democratic turnout and bring back the Democratic Party to the Democratic candidate.

This is a notorious ticket-splitting state. As Christine pointed out, we have a lot of national defense here. They like to vote conservatively. But this time, again, getting back to the economy, that is arousing the grassroots. That is getting the people excited.

They want change, and that's selling, and that is bringing home these Democrats to these congressional races out here too, that normally they would vote Republican. So I'm thinking we may have less ticket-splitting, as we speak than we have previously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Christine was mentioning a minute ago, how do you see these undecideds going? Or are they going to hold out?

CHRISTINE SIERRA: Let me just mention specifically the Hispanic vote, because the change -- the difference between Obama and McCain is dramatic. Right now, Obama is running 45 percentage points ahead of John McCain with the Hispanic vote, or at least in terms of the polls.

That leaves only a small amount -- 17 percent or something like that -- of undecideds, but even -- 30 percent or something of undecideds. But even if John McCain were to pick up those undecideds -- and certainly they're not all going to go for him -- Barack Obama still looks pretty good.

JOE MONAHAN: But he has got to get the -- and I'll just add that he has got to get that vote out, like Kerry did 62 percent. But the problem, Judy, was the under-vote, the Catholic -- some ripplings among Catholics and Hispanics not even voting in the presidential race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That they didn't turn out even the polls were showing...

JOE MONAHAN: They didn't turn out. So that's the challenge they've got. They're going to carry the percentage. They've got to get the vote out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, New Mexico has been a bellwether. Maybe it will be again this time.

JOE MONAHAN: We'll see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Monahan, Christine Sierra, thank you both.

CHRISTINE SIERRA: Thank you very much.

JOE MONAHAN: Thank you.