I'm just back from a two-week road trip that started in New Hampshire and went straight from there to Arizona. That's a major packing challenge and a wrenching turnabout in ways other than weather, too. Although I managed to get around to see all the candidates campaigning in the two states, my real job was interviewing voters; asking people what they think is important, which candidate makes the most sense to them and which candidate gets their vote. Those last two aren't always the same.
New Hampshire Democrats are relatively liberal — most of the really conservative ones have switched parties and become Republicans. Arizona Democrats are relatively conservative — partly because their oldest roots go back to the Southern Democratic parties of Texas and points east and partly because the large Latino population includes many social conservatives. Arizona is generally a challenge to categorize. And that is another difference; New Hampshire is relatively homogeneous, Arizona is not.
But this year, Arizona and New Hampshire Democrats are thinking alike. I met many, many voters who were looking for the candidate they thought might be able to defeat President Bush. I also met voters who were thinking even more strategically about their decision. In a suburban community in New Hampshire, an airline pilot told me his first choice was John Kerry, who he felt was the most likely to succeed, but he decided to vote for John Edwards. Why? "Kerry doesn't need my help," he said. "He's going to win, but I'm hoping to keep John Edwards competitive enough that he'll be on the ticket, too." That's a complicated voting decision worthy of a political consultant. Now, here's the surprising part; two more people said the same thing to me and both of them live in Phoenix.
Of course, I ask voters what their thinking is about issues. There's not much variation there, either. Jobs and the economy come first. Voters talk about problems with affording or even getting health care. Education is important to many people — not so much public schools, but how to pay for college. The war in Iraq matters, along with the president's conduct of foreign policy. But many people in both states dismissed my question, telling me that any of the leading Democrats would do a better job by their lights than President Bush is doing.
Of course, this is a dangerous time for people like me. Looking for trends after a two-week immersion in the thinking of Democrats is a risky business. Democratic unity is almost always ephemeral. But I am still impressed by the current similarity between Democrats from the Southwest and those from New England. I remember lots of times when the differences were much more impressive.
Here's a story from long ago but not so far away. I once began a two-week road trip in Texas where I noticed that the governor was supporting a man he despised for state attorney general. I asked a local politico why and he said (I'm paraphrasing here), "I guess he has the governor where he wants him." That made sense to me, I was raised in a neighboring state where politics were a little on the rough side. One week later I was in Minnesota where something similar was happening. The governor had endorsed a Democratic candidate I happened to know he hated. Again I asked a local expert; this time I was told, "I guess the governor just thinks he's the best man for the job." These two sets of Democrats might have been on different planets.
Now — by way of contrast — I'm finding the most dramatic differences between the states have not to do with their political outlooks but with food and weather. Nobody talks about wind-chill in Phoenix. Nobody asks "red or green" (chili) in Manchester.