It’s the Little Things

In the New Mexico presidential race, no town is too small to matter.

Read the rest of the Swingers series.

Traveling New Mexico in search of swing voters

STEINS, N.M.—There is no sign of political life in Steins, where I start my tour of New Mexico. In fact there is no sign of life at all: Steins is a ghost town. Even worse, it’s a ghost town that has effectively been reghosted—it appears to have once been open to tourists but has since been fenced off from any possible trespassers.

That’s about the only way a place can be ignored by the presidential campaign in New Mexico. My swing-state tour began in New Mexico’s southwest corner, at the first exit off the interstate, and ended at its northeast edge. All along my route, I found that there was almost no place too small to matter. Barack Obama’s operation has set up shop in towns like Hatch, Chama, and Aztec that outpopulate Steins by only a few thousand. It’s not hard to see why. In 2000, Gore won the state by a margin of 366 votes. By comparison, 2004 was a landslide for Bush, who carried New Mexico’s five electoral votes with an edge of 5,988 ballots. Campaigns in New Mexico have gotten used to thinking in small numbers.

Southern New Mexico presents the ultimate challenge to a campaign that is counting on its ground game: It’s got a lot of ground and not many people. New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District—which covers the southern half of the state—is bigger than Pennsylvania. It’s very rural and very conservative. When I arrive in the town of Deming, another 80 miles down the road, the local Luna County Democratic Party chairman, Fred Williams, tells me that his county—unlike many others in southern New Mexico—has a substantial Democratic registration advantage. But when it comes to presidential and congressional races, many of those voters lean GOP. (The county, which is heavily agricultural and nearly 60 percent Hispanic, went to Bush by 824 votes in 2004.) This year, Williams thinks the challenge is winning over older Democratic women who helped carry the county for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary but tell him “they still are not completely comfortable supporting Obama.”

SOMEWHERE ON INTERSTATE 10—With two competitive House races, an open Senate seat, and the state’s electoral votes up for grabs, I’ve heard approximately 267 campaign ads on the radio before even making my first night’s stop in Las Cruces. The prize for Most Obscure Reference goes to Rep. Steve Pearce, the Republican candidate for Senate who currently represents southern New Mexico in Congress. His ad attacks his opponent as “breathtakingly liberal” for failing to condemn a French city for naming a street after the murderer of an American police officer. (I’m confused, too, although I think the ad is referring to this.) NRA ads warning about the implications of an Obama administration for gun rights are nearly ubiquitous. And the Obama campaign seems to be fighting for the same turf, running a spot featuring the head of the American Hunters and Shooters Association vouching for the Illinois senator.

LAS CRUCES—As southern New Mexico goes, Las Cruces is about as liberal as it gets. It’s home to New Mexico State University, as well as a growing community of East Coast transplants who have moved here for the weather. But for a good example of New Mexico’s ideological diversity, consider this: Santa Fe, in the northern part of the state, was one of the first cities in the country to pass a living-wage ordinance. Las Cruces, on the other hand, doesn’t yet have curbside recycling. I learn this while attending a neighborhood meeting hosted by the Las Cruces mayor when Phil Washburn asks him when the city will finally get its act together and start collecting his bottles and cans.

Washburn—who works for the university’s Campus Crusade for Christ—is a veteran swing-state voter. In 2004, when he was living in Ohio, he voted for Bush. But he’s not so sure this time around. “McCain is somewhat old politics, and we definitely need a change,” Washburn says as he holds his baby daughter. “Obama is a great orator. … But I don’t want to be told what I want to hear. I want to hear where you are going to take the country.”

ALBUQUERQUE—When I pass through town in late September, I find that many New Mexican political leaders are a little hesitant to talk to an out-of-town reporter. The reason: Nobody wants to become the next Fernando C. de Baca.

When I arrived in New Mexico, C. de Baca was still chairman of the Republican Party in Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque and accounts for a little less than a third of the state’s population. By the time I left Albuquerque, he had resigned. His downfall was the result of an interview he had given earlier that month to a BBC reporter doing his own tour of the state. “The truth is that Hispanics came here as conquerors,” he said. “African-Americans came here as slaves. … Hispanics consider themselves above blacks. They won’t vote for a black president.”

C. de Baca’s remarks are eventually condemned by just about everyone in the state’s political establishment, and after a week of controversy, he finally resigns. But the one-time chairman isn’t the first person to question how New Mexico’s unique demographic composition will affect the state’s political fortunes. (Indeed, Republicans ask where the outrage was when a Clinton-supporting state senator said in the spring she didn’t know a single Hispanic over 50 who would vote for Obama.) State Sen. Rod Adair, a Republican from Roswell who is a demographer in his day job, points out that New Mexico is one of the most unusual states in the nation “demographically” (he should know), meaning its makeup diverges the most from the U.S. population as a whole. (Hawaii is probably the only state any weirder.) About 44 percent of its population—and 37 percent of the eligible voters—are Hispanic, and almost 10 percent are Native American.

When New Mexico gets national coverage, the question of who will win the Hispanic vote often gets the bulk of the attention. But thinking about a “Hispanic vote” in New Mexico doesn’t make all that much sense. Many Hispanic families in the northern part of the state have lived there since long before New Mexico joined the union, and according to University of New Mexico professor Gabriel Sanchez, they tend to identify themselves as being of Spanish origin; by contrast, southern New Mexicans are far more likely to call themselves Mexican-Americans. (These Latino voters are also different than their counterparts nationwide: Compared with other states with large Hispanic populations, fewer New Mexicans were born outside the United States. [PDF]) Hispanics in the north have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates since FDR. In the south and in Albuquerque—as in Luna County—they may register as Democrats but consider voting Republican at the top of the ticket.

Still, the demographics of New Mexico present a challenge for McCain. The Native American population tends to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. That means McCain has to win a sizable percentage of Hispanics across the state—probably at least 40 percent—to stand a shot at carrying New Mexico. Recent poll numbers aren’t promising: An Albuquerque Journal survey showed just 21 percent of likely Hispanic voters going for McCain, compared to 62 percent for Obama. Likewise, McCain probably needs to keep Obama’s margin of victory small in the fast-growing Albuquerque metro region—another problem area according to the Journal poll, which showed Obama up 51 percent to 34 percent. (Among all likely voters, Journal polling shows Obama up five points.)

The weeklong brouhaha surrounding C. de Baca may fade from memory by Election Day, but it probably didn’t help in either matter. In downtown Bernalillo, a few miles north of Albuquerque, Democrat Kenneth Estrada tells me that Hispanic voters don’t want to be told they are racist. “He has got a lot of Spanish people angry about that,” Estrada says as he sits outside a corner store. “It was a very racial remark—very stupid.”

SANTA FE—The mariachi band has been playing in the parking lot of PC’s Restaurant for about an hour now, and it is starting to look bored. The rest of us are asking two questions: When will Caroline Kennedy show up? And where’s the rest of the crowd?

In the Obama campaign’s defense, the event was scheduled at the last minute. Kennedy was slated to appear at only a few private fundraisers—and many of the press reports about her visit erroneously said the event wasn’t open to the public. By the time Kennedy makes her very brief remarks, the parking lot still isn’t very full, but Obama staffers gamely insist they are happy with the turnout of 175 or so.

The campaign’s concerns about turnout run deeper. The Democrats start with a huge advantage in northern New Mexico—but will they show up? Kerry won 65 percent of the vote in nearby Rio Arriba County, for example, but turnout was only 60 percent—less than it had been for the 2002 elections and significantly lower than in the Republican strongholds in the south and east. Hector Balderas, an up-and-coming Democrat who was elected state auditor in 2006, says that the key to winning the state may lie in just getting a few tiny communities in the north to come out and vote. (Balderas knows what he is talking about. He comes from Wagon Mound, population 369.) And compared with the Kerry campaign, which according to Balderas sent organizers to his part of the state just days before the election, the Obama campaign seems to be doing a better job of creating connections with the voters here. Obama himself has visited Espanola in Rio Arriba County, and his campaign has established a presence in smaller towns. “It sends a message that he’s not forgetting rural, northern New Mexico,” Balderas says. “That’s what Hispanics like. That’s how you earn their loyalty.”

SPRINGER—The population of Colfax County, County Commissioner Bill Conley tells me, is “14,000, give or take one or two.” As Conley describes it, it mirrors the first counties I drove through when I entered the state—Democrats outnumber Republicans, but they don’t always stick to the party line. “They are very conservative on the issues,” Conley says. “A lot of these people are ranchers—they want less government, they resent more regulation.”

Colfax County has a notable distinction: It is the only county to vote for the statewide winner, going blue in 2000 before shifting red in 2004. Conley, a Republican running for his second term this year, takes a certain pride in that. “I carried 52 percent of the vote, and [Bush] carried 51 percent. So I always joke about who carried who,” he says. This year, Conley sounds confident about his own re-election campaign. But in a presidential race that has already seen Obama up by a little in statewide polls, Obama up by a lot, McCain up by a little, and now Obama back up by a few points, Conley’s not placing any bets on the outcome. “It’s going to be a close race, and I can’t tell you what the outcome is going to be,” Conley says. “My feeling—when I’m out there—is it could go either way.”

Forty miles down the road, as I drive through Raton—the last real stop before Colorado—it’s not hard to understand why Conley thinks he’ll see another close election. Raton has field offices for both parties. It also has fewer than 8,000 people. But in New Mexico, history suggests that’s territory worth fighting over.