How the Democrats Won New Mexico

How did President Obama take New Mexico off the “swing state” map?

Supporters listen as Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event.
Supporters listen as Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Hobbs, N.M.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—On Friday afternoon the white Dodge van drops Stacy Eliason off in the northeast suburbs, a 27-year-old neighborhood of duplexes framed by the Sandia Mountains. Eliason, 67, holds an iPad in a black and red rubber case, and on her arm she keeps a purse full of “lit.” She’s a canvasser for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s outreach appendage.* She gets $11.67 per hour to walk precincts. Tonight, she will help prove that New Mexico is no longer a swing state.

“We’re not actually asking questions about the president,” says Eliason. Working America’s walkers are given short “raps,” just a few questions that can be answered in less than a minute if a subject isn’t chatty. She walks her path of gated homes, Kias, Nissans, and Fords in the driveways, and meets the potential Democratic vote.

The red-shirted door-steppers of Working America had been asking whether voters supported President Obama, whether they supported Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Martin Heinrich, whether they backed the Democrats’ state House candidate, and whether they’d vote for a city minimum-wage hike. (Santa Fe, they point out, has a minimum wage $3 higher than Albuquerque’s $7.15.)

A problem emerged. Too many people, about two-thirds, supported Obama. The question got the labor group no closer to identifying voters. Sometimes, as Eliason goes through her “rap,” the conversation drifts to Obama. Three times out of three dozen, she meets real anti-Obama sentiment. Anyone who’s still on the fence—middle-aged and elderly whites, Hispanics—is still with Obama. One retiree, Evelyn Lopez, is rattled by the president’s “confused” demeanor in the first debate, but “I don’t think Romney knows about people like me,” so he’s still nixed.

And this is the Romney campaign’s dilemma. For generations, New Mexico had been a swing state that Republicans carry when they win and keep close when they don’t. Native Americans and Santa Fe liberals battled for supremacy with the conservative whites and Hispanics of the ranches and energy boomtowns. Albuquerque and its suburbs would be fought to a draw.

So Al Gore carried the state by 366 votes, a win that took four weeks for the state to confirm. Four years later, George W. Bush carried New Mexico with 5,982. And for a while, it looked like the race between Barack Obama and Arizona transplant John McCain would be fairly close. The final polling suggested a 7-point Obama win. He ultimately won by 15 points, becoming the first Democrat to win a majority of New Mexico votes since Lyndon Johnson 44 years earlier. John Kerry had won Albuquerque’s Bernalillo County by 4 points; Obama carried it by 21 points. Romney’s polling even worse than McCain did. The GOP nominee is not playing for this state, ceding electoral votes won by Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the Bushes.

Nobody covers up the reasons for the swing. Republicans admit it: They alienated Hispanic voters and they paid for it. “The reason that a lot of Hispanic independents and conservatives are so uncommitted is because the tone coming out of the [Republican primary] debates was so strident,” says Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents basically all of New Mexico south of Albuquerque. “They all got painted a bad picture. I’ve spent a long time with the Romney campaign on Hispanic and immigration issues. It was us who suggested that you ought to go onto Univision and speak to Hispanic audiences. And his tone was a lot softer. We get the tone right, and we’d be OK.” But it’s a struggle. “I love the Tea Party, but they’re hitting the gas on this issue.”

You can’t do things like that in a state where whites are the minority. In 2000, according to the Census, New Mexico was 42.1 percent Hispanic and 9.5 percent Native American.

In 2010, after a decade in which this state grew faster than the national average, the numbers rose to 46.7 percent Hispanic and 10.1 percent Native American. Here, as in Texas, there are conservative Hispanics who can trace their roots back 12 or more generations, and who Republicans can win. But they’ve made it harder. That big Native American vote gives them no room for error.

When day breaks on Saturday I arrive at Shiprock, in northwestern New Mexico.* The 101st annual Najavo Nation celebration is peaking with a parade down the one four-lane highway that connects conservative Farmington to the reservations. Teens walk around in AC/DC and Misfits shirts; vendors with and without itinerant food-sale papers tote carriages or put up grills to sell frybread, spam breakfast burritos, and Pepsi.

Before I’d left, some new friends in Albuquerque reeled at the idea of a night drive, telling me I was “taking my life in my hands.” This lessens my surprise at the story leading on A1 of the local paper: “Eight-time offender’s ninth DWI didn’t stick.” This is how poverty becomes cliché, and this an electorate that counts on government help. The Democrats, who got 79 percent of their vote in 2008, press the advantage by swarming the parade. Rep. Heinrich, the Senate candidate, tossed plastic-wrapped popcorn balls as he moves down the route. Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who already represent this area, help introduce him to the crowd. Henrich stops and talks to a Najavo on the parade route, Grace Egay, who works at the local hospital.

“I’m voting for Martin and for Obama,” says Egay. “Obama is for the Native American Indians. Romney doesn’t say anything for the Native American Indians. I say we deserve to be helped. Our land was taken over by Europeans and we didn’t get any, any kind of reward back. Even our health and education was cut down.”

Heinrich reaches the end of the parade route, and as he thanks his volunteers I ask him whether Mitt Romney’s assessment of the electorate—that 47 percent of people are too dependent to break from their party—gets any ballast here. “You have serious needs for better water infrastructure, better roads,” says Heinrich. You can’t create the economic development you need unless you have those things first. People here know that even if they’re not paying federal income taxes, they’re paying their payroll taxes, their gross receipts taxes. They’re struggling to get by.” The Hispanic voters, the other solid bloc that’s giving him a lead, have their own reason to stay with Obama. “It’s not just the issue of immigration but the tone of how Republicans talked about it during the primaries.”

The parade ends and the single highway fills up with cars. I drive back to Albuquerque. Heinrich’s opponent, former Rep. Heather Wilson, is shaking hands at a University of New Mexico football tailgate. The moderate Republican held the state’s first district, Albuquerque and its environs, until she left for an ill-fated 2008 Senate bid—and Heinrich took her seat. Every profile of Wilson mentions three facts: that she’s a Rhodes Scholar, that she’s an Air Force veteran, and that she’s one of the best campaigners alive. She dives for footballs in the parking lot. She knows voters by their first names. During a brief interview, she’s stopped three times by people who want to catch up with her. I watch her tell a medical student that she’s going to repeal Obamacare. He doesn’t seem to agree. He asks for a photo with her, anyway.

Oh, and she’s losing. Public polls put her 10 points behind Heinrich. American Crossroads has been on the air since summer with ads that portray her in full-on walking-talking-with-real-people mode. (It absolutely doesn’t hurt that Wilson used to be on the board of American Crossroads.) Wilson’s own ads introduce voters to an ordinary person who got Social Security benefits after her father died. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled ads in September, and there’s that matter of Mitt Romney not even trying to win here.

“A number of environmental groups spent money here right after the primary,” explains Wilson. “Actually, the environmentalist groups, together, spent more money than the groups aligned the other way. So it’s been a little bit to my detriment, but I defend their right to criticize me.” It’s a good thing, sort of, that the presidential candidates aren’t driving out their own vote with ads and campaign stops. “There’s not as much clutter. Four years ago, everything and everyone was on TV. And it may end up being very, very close here.”

The glow from the first presidential debate is only slowly fading, and plenty of Republicans here talk about Romney knocking the president flat again and pulling into a New Mexico tie. Plenty more of them say they now live in Blue America. On Sunday, I go to an early church service in Rio Rancho. It’s the city-sprawl heart of Sandoval County, one of the regions that flipped from Bush 2004 to Obama 2008. After a service, an usher hears what I’m doing in town and attempts to explain why the state’s been swung.

“When Mitt Romney made that statement about the 47 percent, I knew what he meant,” says John Hawkos. “He was saying that 47 percent of people wouldn’t vote for him. He wasn’t saying he wouldn’t do anything to help them. You’ve got a demographic here that’s going to vote Democratic forever. You could put David Duke and Al Sharpton on the same ticket, and as long as they were running on a Democratic ticket they could get elected.”

Correction, Oct. 9, 2012: This article stated that Working America is the AFL-CIO’s campaign appendage. It is their outreach appendage. This article also said that Shiprock, N.M., is in the northeastern part of the state. It is in northwestern New Mexico.