LIANE HANSEN, host:
After Michigan's primary comes Nevada's caucus on Saturday. It's the first Western state in the 2008 presidential nominating process.
In the Rocky Mountain West, Republican loyalty used to be taken for granted. But the picture is no longer red or blue but rather a mixture - think mauve, so says Larry Swanson, director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Dr. LARRY SWANSON (Director, O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, University of Montana): One of the things about the interior west, well, we don't have a lot o big cities - we've got Denver and Salt Lake City and places like Boise and Spokane - but we have quite a few small cities. And that's where a lot of the growth over the last 15 years is concentrating, and that's starting to also turn the political culture into much more of an urban one and what most people from a distance might think in terms of a rural political culture.
HANSEN: What's the difference?
Dr. SWANSON: You know, within these cities you're finding that people are less and less sort of in the box, you know, I'm just categorically going to vote Republican or I'm categorically going to vote Democratic. I think it's much more issue-oriented, it's much more what are the candidates is saying, and then you tend to get a fairly even split vote. Most of the time, the voting margin in those urban areas can be either candidate is going to get less than 55 percent. We have 56 counties in Montana, for example, in our recent U.S. Senate race that the winning Democratic candidate only won in 16 of those 56 counties.
HANSEN: What do you consider to be some of the most pressing issues for Western voters?
Dr. SWANSON: The biggest, sort of, umbrella issue of the interior west is growth and change. A lot of people are gravitating to what they believe to be the wide-open spaces, the clean air, the nice communities and what have you. But our economy is also changing and we're moving away from a, sort of, a narrow dependence on logging and mining and agriculture, to an area where the fastest growing piece of the region's economy is professional and business services, and that's been the case for the last 15 years or so.
HANSEN: In terms of the economy, how is that playing into the presidential election?
Dr. SWANSON: You know, our part of the country will also have a very tight labor market, and there's increasing emphasis on workforce development and education, so we're almost entering a golden age for education out here. That's a complete change from the past.
HANSEN: What do you mean by a golden age of education?
Dr. SWANSON: Well, in this part of the world I think most politicians have thought when you talk about state funding for education - the idea was that education was a cost that needed to be minimized. But in the kind of economy that's emerged in our region, more and more businesspeople are understanding that investing in education is investing our economic prosperity. So that's changing a very important, sort of, political dimension here, where you always had one party sort of running against spending for education and one party running for more spending on education. Increasingly, you're not going to find a candidate running in this part of the country who's not for spending more on education.
HANSEN: Given what you've said about the fast-growing areas and the tight labor market, how do you think then that would affect Western voters on the immigration issue?
Dr. SWANSON: I think the immigration issue right now is sort of for Democratic candidates' too-hot-to-handle. You're not exactly sure how that one is going to cut among voters and so you just kind of avoid it. Like on the Republican side it's more, well, we're going to take the hard edge on the immigration issue, and that still appeals to a lot of people. But the reality is, with a very tight labor market that we have in this region and our fast-growing economy, we will pulling more and more workers into the region from outside, and that's going to mean increasing number of Hispanic workers, most certainly, and we're finding that all around the region, particularly with the construction sector being so fast-growing in this part of the country.
HANSEN: How important are environmental issues to voters in the interior west?
Dr. SWANSON: That one has basically turned 180 degrees over the last 15 years. If you go back to the '80s when economically we were primarily sort of natural resource industry based the environment and the protection of the environment was something viewed as being at odds with economic progress.
Today, most of our economic growth throughout this region has been amenity-driven, its people coming to the region for quality of life. And that economy is basically one that says protecting the environment is one that translates into protecting our economy. You know, you're hard pressed to find a politician that's going to make those old arguments about environmental protection in this region. If they are making those old arguments, they're just out of step.
HANSEN: Is either party now placing any more emphasis on the interior west?
Dr. SWANSON: The parties are waking up to it. You're going to have at least a couple of these states that are going to be increasingly in play in presidential politics.
HANSEN: Larry Swanson directs the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana, Missoula. He spoke to us from member station KUFM.
Thank you so much.
Dr. SWANSON: My pleasure.