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Political clout shifts westward

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, March 7, 1995

For a long time — since World War II — the West and South have been America’s most rapidly growing regions. During the 1980s, more than 75% of the nation’s population growth occurred in just five states — two in the West (California and Texas) and three in the South (Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.)

During the past two years nine of the 10 fast growing states are in the West — led by Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

This growth is driven by a number of factors. One is the shift in the global economic center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific (commerce across the Pacific is now more than double that across the Atlantic). Another is the migration of footloose Americans, moving in droves to what Rand McNally calls America’s “mild and wild” places — where the Rocky Mountains and “Cascadia” in the Pacific Northwest are preferred destinations. Many migrants are among the nation’s most talented people — computer specialists, software engineers, microbiologists, designers, multimedia specialists. Result: Start-ups develop around clusters of talented people who also attract capital investment as well as established companies. Today, jobs follow people as much as the other way around.

Because we live in a democracy where people count, the political significance of this 50-year pattern of population growth should not be minimized. In 1892, (what are now) the 19 states all or partially west of the 100th Meridian accounted for less than one in five (16%) of the electoral votes for president. In 1952, they accounted for 25%. By 1992, the West accounted for one of three votes (33%) in the electoral college. In 1952, California had 32 electoral votes. Today, it has 54. In 1952, Texas had 24 electoral votes. Today, it has 32. In 1892, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alaska and Hawaii didn’t have any electoral votes (they weren’t states yet). Today, they have 33. America’s political center of gravity has shifted South and West following the movement of people.

The political significance of the interior Western states is also increasing. For example, the public lands states outside of California — Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Arizona — now have 58 electoral votes (up one-fourth from 1952), and most of their voters are concentrated in 10-15 media markets, about the same number needed to reach California’s voters. Yet these states have more political weight in the electoral college than California and — because most Westerners live in urban clusters — are easier and cheaper for a political media buyer to reach.

Of the two major Western states, California has been kinder to Republicans and Texas to Democrats. But it’s hard to be elected president without carrying both. In the 12 elections since WW II, the winner has carried California 10 times (the exceptions were Kennedy in 1960 and Carter in 1976) and Texas 10 times (the exceptions were Nixon in 1968 and Clinton in 1992). While the Intermountain states generally have voted Republican since the end of WW II, Bill Clinton won six states, including Colorado, with 38 electoral votes, support largely dissipated by the Clinton administration’s discredited and now defunct land-use and water “reform” proposals.

So as we begin the countdown to 1996, the West should expect more attention as campaign strategists note the region’s increasing influence produced by its growing political clout.

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