Annapolis Institute Overview


‘Big Sky’ primary would shift power

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, June 8, 1998

If the 10 states of the Intermountain West (including the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Northwest states) can agree on a common date for a year 2000 Western regional presidential primary — what my colleague Rick O’Donnell and I call the “Big Sky” primary — then a new and more influential role for the New West in national politics will be firmly established as we enter the first decade of the 21st century.

This is one of the punchlines of Western Political Outlook, a new report released last week at the National Press Club by the Denver-based Center for the New West.

A key finding of the report is the dramatic increase in the attractiveness of the Western states outside of California as a place to win delegates in the presidential primaries and to win electoral votes in the general election.

Reason: Rapid population growth, coupled with the low cost of advertising in major media markets of the Intermountain West, makes it possible to reach a large number of voters – even more electoral votes than in California – at a very low cost.

Example: California will have 54 votes in the Electoral College in 2001; the 10 states of the Intermountain West will have 58.

The numbers are even more dramatic for the presidential nominating conventions. Example: The 10 “Big Sky” states of the Intermountain West will send 242 delegates to the Republican convention while California will send 163 delegates.

“A key factor favoring increased attention to the Intermountain West,” according to O’Donnell, one of the authors of the report, “is the substantially lower cost of reaching voters.” Example: To reach 80 percent of California voters, a presidential hopeful would need to advertise in four media markets: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego. The cost: $6.5 million for a campaign with 100 television ads.

To reach 80 percent of voters in the Intermountain West requires advertising in nine “Big Sky” media markets: Albuquerque, Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Spokane and Tucson. The cost: $4 million.

Put another way, it would cost about $40,000 in ad spending for each Republican delegate from California vs. less than $17,000 for each Republican delegate from the “Big Sky” states of the Intermountain West.

According to the report, this new reality is a strong argument for the creation of a Western regional presidential primary in the year 2000 – an idea proposed by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and supported by legislators from several Western states, including leaders from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada, who have already agreed to participate in a process to find a common date.

A Western Presidential Primary – held between the New Hampshire primary and the South’s Super Tuesday; and one week before a new California primary recently proposed for March 7, 2000 — would create a new center of gravity in American politics that would surely be reflected in new campaign strategies by presidential hopefuls. This would surely force Western issues such as the management of public lands, water policy, immigration, secure borders, Pacific economic cooperation and NAFTA into the mainstream of the presidential contest. That could help rebalance the nation’s political dialogue. Not a bad result.

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