Traveling New Mexico in search of swing voters.

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 14 2008 6:29 PM

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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.)

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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.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

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