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.