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How the West Was Lost

Explaining McCain's unpopularity in his own backyard

Two regions in this election contain a disproportionate number of battleground states: the Rust Belt (including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin) and the Interior West (Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada). On that score, each candidate would seem to have a home-region advantage, with Barack Obama representing Illinois in the heart of the Rust Belt region, and John McCain Arizona in the Interior West.

Studies have proven the presence of a strong “friends and neighbors” effect in a candidate’s home state: They tend to outperform their demographics among voters who know them the best. There is also some evidence that this advantage carries over to the regional level, particularly in the South and in New England, if the candidate has a grasp on the concerns and the ways of thinking most common to the voters in his region.

Obama has lived up to his end of the bargain, winning in essentially every state that borders the Land of Lincoln. In Iowa, which John Kerry lost in 2004, but where Obama's victory in the state's January caucuses made his campaign viable, there have been 27 public polls released since the first of the year; Barack Obama has led 26 of them, and was tied with McCain in the other. In Wisconsin, a state that went to Kerry by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2004, Obama has led four of the last five polls by double digits. In Indiana, which hasn't voted Democratic since 1964, Obama has drawn the race to a dead heat. Missouri was on the verge of losing its bellwether status after John Kerry ceded it by seven points, but is now back in the toss-up column, with some recent polling trending toward Obama. 

But John McCain, by contrast, has made little progress in the West beyond his home state of Arizona. He now trails Obama in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, all three of which went to George Bush in 2004. In spite of early declarations from his campaign that he would fight for Washington, Oregon, and perhaps even California, he never eroded Obama's advantage along the Pacific coast, and is no longer trying. Obama has even led in a few polls in Western states as far-flung as North Dakota, Montana, and--before Sarah Palin's entry into the race—a poll in Alaska. The region that had once appeared to harbor the most potential for McCain might now contain the states that tip the balance of the election toward Obama. 

Why is McCain performing so poorly in his own backyard? In part, he is fighting a Sisyphean battle against the demographic changes in the region. The Census Bureau measures how many people migrate into each state each year. In 2006, half of the top ten fastest-growing states were in the West, ranging from Nevada (3.5 percent) to Colorado (1.9 percent). These new residents generally fall into one of two categories: college-educated white folks from the coasts looking for cheaper housing, better schools, or a higher quality of life--or, Latinos. Both groups are quite friendly to Democrats. 

Still, McCain's politics may also be partly to blame. For one thing, McCain is perceived largely as an insider--the Senator from Washington (D.C.) rather than the Senator from Arizona. The West--particularly the Mountain West--does not like Washington establishment candidates. Consider, for instance, that Bill Clinton--running as an outsider in 1992--won Montana, and came within single digits of George Bush in states like Wyoming and Alaska. By 1996, however, when his incumbency had transformed him into an insider by default, Clinton lost Montana, and was crushed in Wyoming and Alaska by 13 and 18 points, respectively. 

McCain may also have gotten off to a bad footing in the West because of his hawkish stance on foreign policy. Between the Ron Paul-ish isolationist elements evident in the rural reaches of the West--the region was by far Paul's best for fundraising on a per-capita basis--and the neo-hippie culture still apparent in places like Boulder, Colorado, and Santa Fe, the West has relatively little appetite for foreign entanglements. Exit polls in 2004 revealed that 28 percent of voters in Oregon, 23 percent in Colorado, 21 percent in Nevada, and 20 percent in New Mexico listed the war in Iraq as their most important voting issue, and that these voters went for John Kerry about 3:1. By contrast, just 15 percent of voters in the country as a whole listed Iraq as the issue that decided their vote. 

McCain has also managed to wind up on the wrong side of a number of the West's peculiar pet issues. He had been a supporter of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, and has previously called to renegotiate the Colorado River compact, which might result in diverting some of Colorado's water to Arizona and California. McCain won the grudging endorsement of the NRA, but doesn't have the Second Amendment bona fides to win many votes on the issue. (He recently received a C+ from the group and an F from the Gun Owners of America.) He seems to satisfy precisely nobody on immigration, having lost the trust of conservatives with his support of the McCain-Kennedy bill in 2006, but then losing Hispanics when he backtracked on the issue during the Republican primaries. 

Lastly, McCain's campaign is simply being outhustled. In Colorado, for instance, the McCain campaign has opened 12 field offices to Obama’s 47; in New Mexico the ratio is 15 to 38. Because so many voters in the West are emigrants from elsewhere in the country (just 12 percent of Nevada voters in 2004 were native to the state), identifying and tagging one’s voters is at a premium; relying on voter lists from four years ago won't do. This is bad news for McCain, who has placed less emphasis on turnout than perhaps any campaign in recent memory. 

Things could be worse for McCain; he at least appears to have Arizona and its ten electoral votes locked down (a state which, had McCain not been from there, could have easily wound up in the Obama column). Montana, which was competitive over the summer, bounced over to McCain following the Republican convention, and is among the few states yet to bounce back to Obama. 

But while Mitt Romney was referring to McCain when he said at the Republican convention that “if America really wants change, it's time to look for the sun in the West,” McCain’s region looks likely to deliver the election to Obama.

Nate Silver is the founder of, a political website, and a contributor to The New Republic.