09/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If Demography Were Political Destiny

Denver, CO — There is one clear reason the Democratic convention will be held in Denver: Colorado is ground zero in a crucial shift in the partisan balance of power that has the potential to restore Democratic dominance in presidential elections and bring an end to the conservative era of the past 40 years.

The demographic trends here and in New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona all tilt the playing field in favor of the Democrats and threaten traditional Republican strength in the mountain states of the west. There are similar, but not as strong, trends in such Northwest mountain states as Montana and North Dakota.

Evidence of the shift is most visible here in Colorado which has undergone a virtual realignment during the administration of George W. Bush, making it a prime target for in the presidential campaign of 2008.

In a matter of just four years, Democrats converted the state house here in Denver from a 37-28 Republican majority to a solid Democratic bastion, 40-25. The state senate, which had a one-vote 18-17 Republican majority in 2004 now has a 20-15 Democratic majority. In 2006, Democrat Bill Ritter took over the governor's mansion, crushing his Republican opponent, Bob Beauprez, by a margin of 56-41.

The Brookings Institution has performed an in-depth analysis of the population, voting and other demographic trends in the four-state region that clearly demonstrates the dangers facing the GOP and the potential gains for the Democrats.

The "reason these states are increasingly 'in play' is the rapid population growth among two key demographic [pro-Democratic] segments--Hispanics and white college graduates--and the concomitant decline of the [pro-Republican] white working class," write William Frey and Ruy Teixeira in "The Political Geography of the Intermountain West: The New Swing Region."

The two caution that "Of course, demography will not be the only factor in the upcoming election. Presumptive GOP nominee John McCain is from this region and that may possibly help him." They point out, however, that even in McCain's "home state of Arizona, his victory may not be a cakewalk, precisely because of the long-term trends that are nudging it toward purple status."

The Republican Party, in turn, has pointedly chosen the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for its convention in a calculated bid to become competitive in Minnesota. In addition, the GOP is trying to reverse the Democratic tilt of Wisconsin and Michigan, and to hold onto Ohio, where Democrats have made great strides locally during the past four years.

The intermountain West, with its surging Latino population and growing numbers of well-educated, socially liberal whites, is perhaps the most volatile region in the country.

In Colorado from 2000 to 2006, for example, the growth rate of minorities (17 percent) and white college graduates (16 percent) - both sources of Democratic support - has been increasing much more rapidly than such Republican-leaning constituencies as whites without college degrees (5 percent) and whites 65 and older (11 percent).

Looking toward November 4 election day in Colorado, Frey and Teixeira argue that there are three key questions, each one of which is worrisome for McCain and the GOP:

"First, will the white working class maintain its level of support for the GOP? If it does not, and moves toward the Democrats (as some recent polls have suggested), this could be a crippling blow to the GOP's efforts to hold the state. Given other political trends in the state, their coalition is dependent on a supermajority of the white working class vote to win statewide.

"Second, will white college-educated voters, who are steadily increasing their share of the electorate, continue their movement toward the Democrats? If so, that would significantly undercut the GOP's chances of holding the state.

"Third, will minorities, particularly Hispanics whose share of voters is rapidly growing, turn out for the Democrats? Given their very high levels of support for the Democrats in the 2004 election (which appear likely to continue in this election), the greater their turnout, the better for the Democrats. Ditto for single women who have also been recording very high support levels for the Democrats."

In Nevada, the population shifts from 2000 to 2006 favoring the Democrats are even more striking. Minorities have grown by 46 percent and whites with college degrees by 36 percent, driven by surging immigration to Las Vegas' Clark County, the fastest growing county in the nation. Conversely, whites without college degrees have grown by only 7 percent and whites 65 and older by 17 percent.

Just as the GOP in Colorado depends on the white working (non-college) class, so too is the case in Nevada. The problem of the shrinking white, non-college share of the electorate is compounded for Nevada Republicans by the fact that the GOP's margin among these voters is narrowing. In 1988, George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis among working class whites by 29 points, while the younger Bush beat John Kerry by just 13 points.

New Mexico, in turn, is the slowest growing of these four states (although its population is increasing more rapidly than the national average). While the numbers in New Mexico are smaller, the 2000-2006 shifts replicate those in the rest of the region: Minorities grew by 15 percent; college-educated whites by 11; senior whites by 8; and non-college whites actually decline by 3 percentage points.

Arizona, in the view of most political analysts, including Frey and Teixeira, is the most likely of the four states to remain in the Republican column. The population growth patterns favor the Democrats, with minorities and white college grads far outpacing non-college and senior whites. Working to the advantage of the GOP is the fact that Arizona still has the highest percentage of senior whites, many of them relatively conservative and inclined to vote for Republicans.

While these four states all are shifting toward the Democratic Party, demographics are not dispositive, and, with the convention about to start, poll data show that the Intermountain West is up for grabs.

Colorado is a jump ball, with the average of recent surveys collected by RealClearPolitics showing McCain at 45.8 percent and Obama 45.3. McCain holds a tiny 1.3 percent advantage in Nevada, 45 to 43.7. Obama has a 4 point edge in New Mexico, while McCain at the moment looks very strong in his home state of Arizona, holding a 49.7 to 36 lead.

In the long run, in addition to boosting Democratic presidential prospects the real question posed by Democratic gains in this region will be whether the winners here begin to change the ideology of the party.

Many of the Democrats here are more libertarian than liberal, often supportive, for example, of gun rights, and more wary of government intervention than their partisan colleagues on the two coasts and the Midwest.

In this context, the test over the long haul will be whether the Democratic Party can absorb new members who do not toe the line on traditional litmus test issues of liberal orthodoxy. Insofar as these tensions turn into intra-party conflicts, there will be opportunities for the Republicans to adjust to the new demographic terrain.