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Reid, Bennet, and Hickenlooper: A Western Story Worth Tellin'

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Not that long ago, it would have been almost unthinkable that the West would be the firewall for Democratic control of the Senate this election. The influence of this region in American politics will continue to grow as we look forward to 2012 and beyond due to a variety of factors including population growth, the rising influence of Hispanic voters and the powerful role that Independent voters play in the West. Now that results are almost all in, Project New West is beginning to look under the hood at the trends that shaped 2010 and what this means for the future.

Western Independence: In the West, the truth is that you can't paint the region with one broad brush stroke and neither party should take any state or demographic group for granted. President Obama's path to victory in 2012 will likely run through Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico - states that should never be put in the category of red or blue, because that's not how Westerners view ourselves or our candidates. That independent streak is one of the key reasons why Senator Harry Reid, Senator Michael Bennet and Governor-elect John Hickenlooper won their races. They understood that Westerners want problem solvers and not partisan ideologues.

Any candidate who does not have a deep understanding of our region's profound culture of independence will have a blurred vision of how the West is won. The "Tea Party" candidates of the West fared so poorly because they did not reach out to independent voters and members of the other party. Sharron Angle even refused to talk to media outlets that she didn't consider friendly. Westerners reject that kind of approach.

Based on exit polling, Senator Reid, Senator Bennet and Governor-elect Hickenlooper won a solid majority of voters in the West who identify themselves as moderates. Project New West has spent a lot of time trying to understand the electorate beyond party labels. One key metric is whether voters consider themselves to be liberal, moderate or conservative. PNW internal polling throughout the cycle showed that moderate voters were leaning Democratic and the public exit polls are confirming this stayed true through election night.

In Colorado, moderate voters made up 38% of the vote - and they went for Bennet 60-36%. In the Governor's race, Hickenlooper polled 64% among moderates, Republican Dan Maes received 10% and former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo had 25% on the American Constitution Party ticket. These 2010 numbers are very close to Obama's 2008 performance when he was supported by 63% of moderates in Colorado. Compare that to 2004 when John Kerry only won 54% of Colorado's moderates and lost the state.

In Nevada, moderate voters supported Senator Reid 65%-31% and made up 41% of the vote. Senator Reid actually outperformed President Obama, who had 64% in 2008. In 2006 in Nevada, Democratic candidate Jack Carter only won 49% of Nevada moderates in a loss to Senator John Ensign.

Hispanics in the West: Another critical factor in the West is the role Hispanic voters will continue to play as their numbers grow in this region and across the country. For example, turnout in Nevada among Hispanic voters was at record levels for a non-presidential year. According to Catalist voter file analysis of the early and absentee voters, the number of Hispanics who early voted in Nevada nearly doubled since 2006, representing a 3.4 point or 44% increase. Hispanics in Nevada represented an equal share of the 2010 early/absentee vote as they did in 2008 early/absentee. In Colorado, Hispanic early and absentee voters represented 0.9% more of the electorate than in 2006 and only 1.6% less than 2008.

A key factor in understanding Hispanic turnout and candidate preference is to understand that this community is not monolithic in its issue priorities, socio-economic background or language usage. In this election cycle, we saw Hispanic voters were no different than the general electorate. Their priorities were jobs, the economy, education and health care. However, immigration became a factor when conservative candidates used it as a vehicle to conduct racially charged campaigns against their Democratic opponents. If Democrats continue to fight for issues important to Hispanics they will continue to garner their support.

In 2010, two Republican Hispanic candidates for Governor won - Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada. However, Hispanic voters overwhelming supported the Democratic candidate in those races based on PNW's polling of Hispanic early voters. Rory Reid received 66% of the Hispanic early voter and Diane Denish had 21 point advantage over Susana Martinez among New Mexico Hispanic early voters. Why? Because Hispanic voters, just like women, chose their candidate preference based on issues not identity.

Gender in the West: We are also seeing that gender played a significant role in western races. According to national congressional exit polls, men voted Republican 55% to 42% Democratic in Congressional exit polls. On the flip side, women were closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, 49 - 48%, compared to 57-43% in 2008. However, we have noticed something unique in Colorado and Nevada where westerners bucked national trends.

In Nevada, Harry Reid won women voters by 11 points, 53-42%, and only lost men by 2 points, 46-48%. In Colorado, the gap was ever greater, Michael Bennet won the female vote by 17 points, 56-39%, and lost men by 10%, 54-40. In the race for Governor, John Hickenlooper tied Tom Tancredo among men with 44% each, but Hickenlooper beat Tancredo by 30 points, 59-29% among women.

So why were Senators Reid and Bennet and Governor-elect HIckenlooper so much more successful at appealing to both women and men than Democratic candidates in other parts of the country? A big reason was that their opponents used social issues to motivate their conservative base in a region that takes a "live and let live" approach. Western voters want to see a government focused on jobs and the economy, supporting education, and providing community services to support our unique Western quality of life. They don't want the government intruding into their personal lives.

Looking at the West as a whole, Democrats have made significant gains in the past decade. In 2000, Democrats had zero Governors, 3 Senate seats and only 6 of 25 congressional seats. After 2008, they held 5 Governorships, 17 of the 28 seats in Congress and 7 U.S. Senate seats. In 2010, Western Democrats felt the anti-incumbent anger, particularly towards Congress and they now hold 10 congressional seats, 2 Governorships and 7 U. S. Senate seats. The winners and losers of the West going forward will be determined by who digs deep to understand our region, our values and our voters.

Note that Project New West compiled this information from our internal polling and analysis, Catalist analysis and publicly available Edison Research exit poll data access from CNN on November 3, 2010. Exit poll results occasionally shift as the data is weighted to accurately reflect the electorate, particularly among sub-groups.