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There’s Still a Swing in New Mexico’s Step

New Mexico flag

“You see homes in New Mexico where you have a crucifix and a picture of JFK on the wall, and now, President Clinton,” says New Mexico State Representative Brian Egolf (D-47). While the hangings on the walls might suggest that New Mexico has become a Democratic stronghold — so blue that Democratic presidents hang next to Jesus — it has mistakenly begun to lose its status as a swing state. The growing perception of New Mexico as a solidly blue state seems fundamentally at odds with the reality that it elected a far-right Tea Party governor in 2010 and that Democrats hold the State House by a mere and precarious four seats. New Mexico’s particularities, including often homogenized and hard-to-predict voter blocs, unique issues and hotly contested gubernatorial and local races point to a different, more complex story  — one of a state that cannot easily be politically defined. As such, no longer treating New Mexico as a swing state may be a dangerous move for local and national politicians from both parties alike.

A report by FairVote compared the state’s partisan breakdown to that of the entire country to determine whether it ‘swings’ red or blue and found that “in the six elections from 1984 to 2004, New Mexico’s partisanship was never more than 51 [percent] for either major party.” New Mexico was a pivotal swing state in the 2000 general election, and after a recount in the state (alongside recounts in Oregon and Florida), it went blue by only 366 votes. Then in 2004, former President George W. Bush pulled New Mexico red by a squeaky 5,988 votes — Bush’s third lowest winning margin of the entire election. But in 2008 New Mexico began to, statistically, “lose its swing.”

Leading up to the 2008 general election, both parties and presidential candidates treated New Mexico as an important battleground state. According to FairVote, in 2008 New Mexico “ranked 6th on a per capita basis for the most ad spending (about $3.5 million) and candidate visits.” But in November 2008, President Obama’s four-point win in New Mexico shifted the state’s Democratic partisanship score to 53.9 percent. Because partisanship scores from the previous election are used to determine the status of the state in the next election cycle, 2008’s election results meant that in 2012 New Mexico would no longer fall between the ‘swing state’ range of a 47 to 53 percent partisanship score. By a mere 0.9 percent, New Mexico had lost its swing.

When 2012 rolled around it became clear that the contenders for the White House were paying close attention to this development: Only $1 million was spent on ads in the state, down from the 2008 elections by roughly $4 million dollars. Candidate visits also saw a 40 percent decline, with Obama and Romney each visiting three times, giving New Mexico only six presidential candidate visits in the entire campaign season. Some solid states around the country continue to host candidates — New York received 52 campaign visits (17 of those from Obama) and California received 45 — because of their large number of electoral votes, but because New Mexico has few electoral votes to offer (five) it essentially fell off the map.

Despite the paucity of candidate visits, New Mexico stayed true to the statistics and went for Obama in November. In fact, the partisanship measures calculated by Cook Political Report found that in 2012, New Mexico’s two blue congressional districts, US Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham’s and US Representative Ben Ray Lujan’s, were bluer than they had been in 2008 and were seven (D+7) and eight points bluer (D+8) than the rest of the country, respectively. In contrast, at R+6, Congressman Steven Pearce’s lone red district had become less red than in 2008 when it went R+7. In 2012, Obama won the state with 52.9 percent of the vote, almost three points higher than the national 50.6 percent. However (admittedly mimicking a national trend) Obama’s winning margin in New Mexico in 2012 saw a decline from his winning margin in 2008, when he carried the state by a whopping 15.1 points (in 2012 he carried it by 9.9 points).

"Before the 2012 election had even passed, the press started signaling the perceived demise of New Mexico as a swing state and hailed it “solidly blue.”"
Before the 2012 election had even passed, the press started signaling the perceived demise of New Mexico as a swing state and hailed it “solidly blue.” Slate, Daily Kos and FairVote all published articles in early October 2012 burying New Mexico’s swing state status and handing it over to the Democrats.

While the press has termed New Mexico solidly blue and national politicians are no longer treating it as a battleground state, an over reliance on statistics — particularly the partisanship index — is misleading.

One of the problems with the partisanship index is its comparison of nationwide results from the current election (e.g. 2008) to the district results from the past election (e.g. 2004) in order to generate the index. As pointed out on the Swing State Project, “This isn’t as big of a deal with the two Bush elections because they were both so close, but comparing Kerry’s 2004 district numbers with Obama’s nationwide numbers produces some pretty serious gaps.” The index that marked New Mexico’s end as a swing state was just such a comparison between Obama and Kerry. It does not account for the differences in the candidates and the general atmosphere of the 2008 elections in particular, which heavily favored Democrats at the national level. Consequently, the index may have artificially inflated the state’s Democratic lilt and mislabeled it a solidly blue state. In fact, looking at the state’s history of hotly contested local and gubernatorial races reveals quite a different story than the statistics do.

Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democratic state representative for District 43, is herself fighting for a swing seat in the state’s Congress against Republican Geoff Rodgers. In 2010, Richard edged out Republican incumbent Jim Hall, winning with 51 percent of the vote and beating him out by a tight 300 votes. Her race against Rodgers this year is slated to be close as well. Richard’s race is one of ten races for “battleground districts” in the state that has the ability to switch control of the State House. Beyond battleground races like her own, Richard also points to governor races over the past decade and unique voting blocs to demonstrate that New Mexico is really “one giant swing state.”

"Since 1991, no New Mexican governor has handed the gubernatorial torch to a member of the same party, and that did not change in 2010."
Since 1991, no New Mexican governor has handed the gubernatorial torch to a member of the same party, and that did not change in 2010 when Republican Governor Susana Martinez followed termed-out Democrat Bill Richardson. Martinez’s victory over Democrat Diane Denish in 2010 testifies not only to the inconsistency of who holds the governorship, but also to the important and complex role of the Hispanic-Latino voting bloc in New Mexico.

A rising star in the Tea Party, Martinez carried the state with 53.4 percent of the vote, largely thanks to her edge with Hispanics. Martinez’s victory “shows the example of how you can get beyond the damaged brand of the Republicans if you have a Hispanic messenger who seems to be authentic” in New Mexico, explains State Rep. Egolf.

The 2010 gubernatorial results speak to the necessary distinction between the Latino vote — newer immigrants from Central and South America — and the Hispanic vote, which is to say families with long histories in the Southwest who trace their lineage to the Spanish. (Although most articles and polling use Hispanic and Latino synonymously, this article will not). The distinction is essential to fully realize the complexities behind the assumption that New Mexico is demographically a Democratic stronghold. While Hispanic and Latino voters have typically been clumped together into one voter bloc, Martinez’s 2012 victory relied more on the Hispanic and Southern-Anglo votes than the entire “Hispanic-Latino” voting bloc. In fact Martinez lost the Latino vote, 38 percent to 61 percent, to Democrat Diane Denish.

Currently New Mexico is the state with the proportionately largest Latino voting bloc in the country. As such, failing to distinguish Latino voters from Hispanic voters will be misleading for both parties in the future. Democrat analysts lumping the Hispanic and Latino voting blocs together as a singular entity may miss the more conservative Hispanic element that voted for Martinez, while Republicans may miss the more liberal Latino vote’s staunch support for Denish. State Rep. Richard warns “that [while] the newer immigrant vote may tend toward the Democrats, it will depend on the candidate and on the issue [and it is] dangerous to assume that because New Mexico is becoming more Latino it will gain that [Democratic] voting bloc.” In order to fully understand the complex New Mexico voting demographics and make more accurate predictions, it will be critical to distinguish between the Hispanic and Latino vote, especially as the Latino population continues to grow into a voting bloc “that does not align with one political party.”

As New Mexico loses its battleground-state title, attention to local and gubernatorial races has begun to dip, and there have already been cuts in resources to this election’s races. The Democratic Governor’s Association declared it will not be participating in New Mexico’s 2014 gubernatorial race, and the organization’s chairman, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, was quoted saying, “My job is not to promote governors’ races in states where we can’t win,” in reference to New Mexico. The pessimism in the Democratic Party regarding Democrat Gary King’s prospects in the governor’s race paints a starkly different picture to that of a state perceived as a Democrat stronghold. The polls also suggest a state that has continued to swing in its political alignment: Rasmussen Reports found Martinez and King tied at 43 percent each, while CBS/NYT polls found Martinez leading 52 to 44 percent.

Casting New Mexico aside and devoting fewer resources to New Mexico’s gubernatorial races on a national level is a dangerous move for both parties, as New Mexico has emerged as something of a political trampoline for governors on their way to national prominence. Governors Bill Richardson and Gary Johnson ran for president after their stints as New Mexico governor, and Richardson was rumored to be the pick for Secretary of State for Obama’s first term before a corruption scandal emerged. Martinez has also risen to national prominence as a Hispanic female politician and early poster child for the Tea Party. For either party to ignore the national platform that New Mexico has lent its executives would be to let a potential national political rival gain in strength and notoriety unchallenged.

New Mexico’s local races point to the same conclusion as the gubernatorial record: New Mexico has not fallen from swing state-hood. The upcoming election will again be a tight one for New Mexico’s state House. Currently, Democrats hold the 70-seat state house by only four seats (38-32) and the 42-seat senate by seven (25-17). While the state’s senate is not up for reelection in 2014, the House is a “projected tossup” for 2014.

Once again firmly pushing back against the notion of a solidly blue New Mexico, State Representative Richard believes that the Republicans have “absolutely not given up in any way shape or form. What we’re hearing this election cycle is that the Republicans are really trying to garner national resources to try and take over the state house.” To date, Republicans have succeeded in amassing significant national support. In July, two national Republican groups, GOPAC and the Republican State Leadership Committee, voiced their interest in the New Mexico house races and in supporting Republican candidates. As national groups of ambitious Republicans leap at the opportunity to take over the State House, Democrats will have to find organizations and support to take them on. Conversely, prematurely handing the state to the Democrats will make the party’s fundraising a challenge, as people look elsewhere for battleground elections where dollars can work more magic.

Loss of control over the New Mexico State House would be a bad omen for the Democrats, who have controlled the House since 1953, and would perhaps hint at a regional trend, as State Representative Richard explains: “Arizona used to be blue; Texas used to be blue — and [then] they lost control of their state houses.”

Both gubernatorial and local races shine light on the unpredictability and complexity of New Mexico’s politics, the intricacy of its voting blocs and the continuous back and forth between parties. Stripping New Mexico of its swing state status not only underestimates the politics of the state but would have three negative consequences: Issues of primary importance to New Mexico and its unique voter population would fade from national importance; without New Mexico, the mix of swing states would become more homogenous; and the loss of resources to a poor rural state will hurt voter turnout efforts.

Luckily, New Mexico’s time in the national “swing state” spotlight may not be over yet. A number of sources — including NBCLatino, the Political Wire and IVN — continue to stress the importance of New Mexico as a battleground state in 2016. In the upcoming midterm elections and beyond, it will be key for both parties to understand the characteristics that have led New Mexico to continue to swing hard in its local elections. It is these same characteristics that make the state harder to predict in national elections. To dismiss the diversity and complexity of New Mexico’s voters, the state’s unique issues and its election history could prove a costly risk not worth taking for local politicians, election strategists and national policymakers alike.

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