How Obama Won New Mexico Long Before Election Day

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Oct. 8 2012 4:38 PM

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.

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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

“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.)

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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.