As Population Shifts, So Do Political Tactics

In the last decade, population growth in Western swing states outpaced the national average, according to David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. With the Nevada Republican caucus underway, guest host David Greene talks with Damore about the electoral shift and the issues potential voters in the region view as priorities.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, that gives you some sense of what's on the minds of Americans in the Mountain West. It's a region that includes Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and also Utah. And we're going to add another voice now to the mix. David Damore is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada. His research tells the story of a huge population growth that's occurring in the Western United States over just this last decade.

DAVID DAMORE: The four fastest growing states in the country were all in the Mountain West in the last decade here, and what we've seen is this means increasingly these urban spaces in the Mountain West are becoming bigger and bigger and bigger and sort of undercutting the traditional view of the West as this sort of rural frontier land now. Now you have some of those urban spaces here, and a big part of the story is also the increased diversity in the population, you know. So take a state like Nevada, about 46 percent of our population is non-white.

GREENE: Well, if we're talking about a few of those changes - bigger cities, more minorities, urban voters, minority voters often seem to trend toward the Democratic Party. What does this mean for the politics? Is this good news for Democrats?

DAMORE: Absolutely is good news for the Democrats. You've sort of - if you go back 10 years ago at the - in the 2000 election here, this region was largely a region that tilted to the Republican Party. Now clearly, Idaho and Utah are still strong Republican bastions here, but the other four states in the Mountain West - Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico - those are all leaning blue, if you will.

Arizona is obviously probably still somewhere in the middle, but I think that the Democrats have expectations this cycle to make some real inroads there.

GREENE: You know, it's interesting, one of those voices we heard at the top, you know, wide open spaces, the Eastern United States just doesn't understand us out here in the West, and Barack Obama certainly has been painted as an East Coast-style, you know, Liberal elite by his critics. Is that a charge that might stick in some of those states we're talking about?

DAMORE: To some degree out in the rural parts of the states. You know, those are clearly still very, very strong Republican. But those are becoming a smaller and smaller part of geography out here. So if you take Nevada, and we're the most extreme of the states in the region here, 87 percent of all Nevadans live in two counties. So that big geographic space of Nevada is essentially 11 percent, 12 percent of the population. You see similar dynamics in New Mexico and also Arizona as well. So you do have this sort of transition going on here - with the Democrats, of course, doing very, very well in the urban areas and the Republicans doing, you know, essentially well in the rural areas. So the real place of conflict is in the suburbs, outside the population cores.

GREENE: We heard the word immigration in some of those voices. And Mitt Romney, who seems to be the front-runner, has certainly not wrapped up the nomination, but he has threatened to veto the Dream Act. That's a 10-year-old proposed law that would give younger illegal immigrants a pass to citizenship if they did things like serve in the military and take, you know, go to college for a few years. Does a Romney veto - is that something that could get him in trouble as a candidate in that region?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAMORE: Yes, it can. When you look at the Latino vote across the region here, it's not monolithically democratic. But the Republican positions have made it much, much easier for the Democratic Party to mobilize. So coming out and saying I'm going to veto, not just veto the Dream Act, but I think he labeled that a give out or a handout or something along those lines there, that pretty much ends the conversation with Latino voters, even Republican Latino voters. It's a very, very symbolically important issue for that constituency and to just simply come out early in the campaign and take that off the table is going to make it very, very difficult for him to sort of curry favor with that constituency.

GREENE: And then we've already heard Romney say that he would support a different sort of Dream Act if it only involved people who served in the military.

We've talked about immigration, we've talked about the economy, obviously important around the country and in the West. Is there, are there any other issues out there that you see really becoming regionally important, or are we going to see a campaign that looks in terms of issues, very much like it does in the rest of the country?

DAMORE: I think, you know, it's going to look very much like it. I mean obviously each state has certain issues. For example Arizona, there's a lot of big green economy there and that's, you know, something that Obama is going to play up there and sort of force the Republicans to talk about.

And Nevada at some point, you'll get your Yucca Mountain discussion on that one and that may be a little costly for Mitt Romney, given what he had sort of said in South Carolina about, you know, maybe keeping Yucca Mountain alive, and those kinds of issues there. But no, I mean the economy, the housing crisis, those are the big ones out here and, you know, for a large part particularly in Nevada, a lot of people are just sort of numb to it and they don't sort of expect it to rebound overnight.

GREENE: David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, giving us an early look at how the presidential campaign is shaping up out in the West.

Thanks so much for talking to us.

DAMORE: All right. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to NPR News.

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