TOPICS > Politics

Obama, McCain Look West as Political Battlegrounds Shift

July 7, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
Loading the player...
Sen. Barack Obama hopes to win four Western states -- Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana -- in November, but Sen. John McCain is campaigning hard to hold on to the GOP strongholds. Pollsters offer insight.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: While the Obama campaign is looking West as part of its efforts to expand the electoral map, four states are getting special attention, Colorado, you just heard about, New Mexico, Nevada and Montana. Last week, Obama visited a heavily Republican area of the Rocky Mountain state, and he spent the Fourth of July in Butte, Montana.

But John McCain is not ceding any ground. Today, he had his own campaign event in Denver.

Well, we get three views now on these Western battleground states: Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report. Floyd Ciruli, he is a Denver-based pollster. He’s president of Ciruli Associates. And Tom Cronin, he’s professor of political science at Colorado College. He’s author of the upcoming book “On the Presidency,” and joins us now from Washington state.

Thank you to all three of you.

And, Tom Cronin, to you first. Let’s start with the political landscape out there in the Mountain West. Three of the four governors in those states I mentioned are Democrats. I think it’s five of the eight United States senators in those states are Democrats.

So this part of the country is somewhat hospitable, isn’t it?

TOM CRONIN, Colorado College: Yes, it is, Judy, but you need to know that, over the past 28 years, this has been really a strong area for Republicans. If you look at the 1992-1996 election, Ross Perot allowed Bill Clinton to win several of those states, but otherwise it’s a Republican stronghold.

And so it’s going to take a very effective convention and a strong general election campaign for the Democrats to win Colorado and New Mexico. Nevada and Montana are more of a stretch, and it would take a huge landslide to win any of the other four states in the Rocky Mountain West.

Obama's opportunity or challenge?

Stuart Rothenberg
Rothenberg Political Report
Certainly New Mexico and Nevada have a history of being competitive. The last two Bush presidential elections, both of them were very close. And if you look at New Mexico, it is kind of the swingiest of the swing states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Floyd Ciruli, if you're Barack Obama and you're looking at this, do you look at it as an opportunity or more of a challenge?

FLOYD CIRULI, Colorado Pollster: I think it's an opportunity. Colorado, really since about 2004, began shifting to the left, to the Democrats. They are picking up Senate seats, gubernatorial seats, taking both houses of the legislature, so it really does appear to be sort of a grassroots welling up.

As reported earlier, he had a tremendous caucus turnout here, really swept the state. Current polls show him ahead by anywhere from 3 to 5 percentage points. So this definitely looks like a battleground state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're speaking specifically of Colorado. Stu Rothenberg, what about some of these other states that we're seeing may present fertile ground for Obama?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: Well, Judy, certainly New Mexico and Nevada have a history of being competitive. The last two Bush presidential elections, both of them were very close. And if you look at New Mexico, it is kind of the swingiest of the swing states.

I think Colorado is a terrific Democratic opportunity. It's really one of those states that has been a Republican state, that, because of the make-up, the demographics, the combination of upscale voters, and some Hispanics, and some working-class Democrats do give Barack Obama an opportunity.

Montana is a question mark in my mind. It is somewhat more conservative and Republican than these other swing states that we've talked about.

And then, of course, there is the Republican Mountain West, which remains Republican -- Idaho, Wyoming and Utah -- that we're really not even talking about, because, no matter how strong Barack Obama runs, he's not going to run well there.

Voters looking for change

Floyd Ciruli
Colorado Pollster
Colorado voters -- I think more than a third right now are unaffiliated voters. They are indicating as much as any voter that they're unhappy with Washington, the war, the economy, so they're looking for change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Cronin, as you look at these states, as we've laid them out, we've talked about the four that present some hospitable characteristics, and then the other four Stu was just mentioning. What are the characteristics of those states that do present a real possibility for the Democrat?

TOM CRONIN: Well, I think there are a lot of independents and there's party registration favorability in New Mexico, but Democrats have to run almost the perfect campaign to win those three states.

Montana is very much a reach, but there are Hispanics in that region. There are a lot of people who migrated to Colorado, where -- Colorado is one of the highest immigrant states, in terms of people coming from other states, and popular Democratic governors in New Mexico, popular Democratic governor in Montana, and also in Colorado.

And as Floyd said a few minutes ago, Democrats have picked up seats in two of three of those states. So there are a lot of characteristics that are optimistic for the Democrats.

But, again, that region is not like New York or California Democrats. Democrats there are much more moderate. And the number of independents is huge in some of those states, particularly like in Colorado.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Floyd Ciruli, is there something about the Democratic message, about Barack Obama himself this year that makes it less of a reach? How do you read that?

FLOYD CIRULI: Well, it's two things. It's not just the Democratic message; it's the message of change.

As you know, Colorado voters, I think more than a third right now are unaffiliated voters. They are indicating as much as any voter that they're unhappy with Washington, the war, the economy, so they're looking for change.

And to the extent Obama has sort of repositioned the party as a party that is not part of a beltway, not part of the traditional Democratic approach, I mean, even to some extent moving his acceptance speech outside is a way of saying, "I'm different. This is all about change."

I think that is what's attracting these unaffiliated voters. If you look at inside the polls, it's their support by about at least 10 percentage points to 15 percentage points for Obama that's making the difference here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean among which voters?

FLOYD CIRULI: Unaffiliated voters are the people that -- the independent voters are the people that are most anxious for change and that he has, at least early in this race, attracted a lot of support from.

Challenges for McCain

Tom Cronin
Colorado College
[McCain's] got to rev up the traditional Republican base that does exist in the Rocky Mountain West. And he has to show that he has the energy, and the stamina [...] and the new programs that can differentiate himself from the past eight years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu, as you look at the issues that we are told are foremost on voters' minds that the polls show, the economy, everybody is worried about the price of gasoline, energy, of course the war in Iraq at some point, is there something about the way voters in these states see these issues that affects how these candidates, the standing of these candidates?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Judy, we're talking about these states as different from the rest of the country, and they are, to some extent. But I think many of the people here feel the same as people around the country, people in New Jersey, and California, and Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Dissatisfaction with the president. Concern about the state of the economy. They're looking for something different, some change.

And let's face it. Barack Obama is a wonderful speaker, a charismatic figure. And even to some of these conservative voters, they look at him, and he's exciting. If somebody is exciting, you know they're exciting.

And I think that's the appeal. He resonates in this region in a similar way to the way he's greeted everywhere else. Now, there are more conservatives here who will be skeptical of him, but, really, it's about change. I agree. And it's about the president and the president's unpopularity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: About President Bush?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Cronin, what does John McCain have to say, what does he have to talk about in order to cut through some of these things we've been mentioning here?

TOM CRONIN: Well, he has to differentiate himself from President Bush, which is going to be a huge challenge for him, I think, even in this region.

He's got to rev up the traditional Republican base that does exist in the Rocky Mountain West. And he has to show that he has the energy, and the stamina, and the health, and the new programs that can differentiate himself from the past eight years. So that's a tough row to hoe.

And so, as I think Stu just said nicely a moment ago, the number-one advantage going to Obama is the legacy of the Bush presidency, in addition to his attractive, charismatic candidacy. So it's going to be tough sledding in those three or four states that we're especially talking about.

But McCain is well-liked. And there's a lot of military presence in some of these states. And he also comes from a nearby state, Arizona.

However, historically, one might point out that Barry Goldwater did not carry most of these states in 1964 when there was a landslide for Lyndon Johnson. He barely held on, in fact, to Arizona.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we need to remember that.

A "maverick approach" appeals

Floyd Ciruli
Colorado Pollster
Colorado and I think most of the West, they sort of like that maverick, independent approach. They like this sense that someone will break from the mold, offer some -- they're not quite certain what that change should be, but offer that change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are there messages -- let me, I'm circling back to a point -- I was asking Stu about it a minute ago -- Floyd Ciruli, are there messages, personal styles that don't work with voters in the West or do work, conversely, that would be different from voters elsewhere?

FLOYD CIRULI: Well, one of the real challenges of Democrats historically here, the presidential candidates, is that they were Eastern. They appeared to be sort of part of, quote, "the problem," the federal government. They were liberal, quite often, and they simply weren't a good fit.

Colorado and I think most of the West, they sort of like that maverick, independent approach. They like this sense that someone will break from the mold, offer some -- they're not quite certain what that change should be, but offer that change.

So I think McCain, this should be a great battleground state for him here in Colorado, because, indeed, he has a military background. He was early in terms of the environment and global warming. He is early on the Hispanic immigration issue, illegal immigration issue.

So he has a lot of things going for him that both break from the White House and are independently minded. But he is behind; there's no doubt about that. But he certainly is competitive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final, quick point.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I would simply say that this is a region that doesn't believe that Washington has all the answers. And to the extent that John McCain can paint Barack Obama as an Eastern liberal who's going to bring all the decision-making to the nation's capital and take it away from the folks out in the Rocky Mountain West, I think McCain then would have an opportunity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, gentlemen, we're going to leave it there. Tom Cronin, Floyd Ciruli, we thank you both.

And Stu Rothenberg here in Washington, thank you.