Presidential politics were likely not on the minds of New Mexico voters during the primaries on Tuesday. There was no question as to whether Mitt Romney and President Obama would be the major party candidates on the ballot in November. But the general election cycle has begun. At this point, the outlook for the typically competitive and evenly divided state appears surprisingly one-sided.
In recent presidential election cycles, New Mexico received significant attention from candidates vying for the White House. The state’s demographic mix of staunchly conservative Southern New Mexico, liberal Democratic Northern New Mexico, and politically fickle Albuquerque has traditionally made the state into a battleground. In a close election year, New Mexico’s five electoral votes have held strategic importance.
In 2000, Al Gore defeated George W. Bush in New Mexico by a mere 366 votes. Bush flipped the state to the Republican side in 2004, winning by 6,000 votes. The key to Bush’s 2004 victory was his ability to win more than 40 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote. Both elections were won by less than one percentage point.
Those narrow contests made the state a major target for both Obama and John McCain in 2008. Both candidates spent millions of dollars on advertising and made multiple campaign stops in New Mexico. Nevertheless, the contest was not close in 2008. Obama dominated, winning a sizable 15 percent margin of victory. In doing so, he helped sweep in Democratic congressional candidates Tom Udall, Ben Ray Lujan, Martin Heinrich and Harry Teague.
Democrats are hoping that President Obama will repeat his dominant performance in New Mexico this election cycle. Polls so far show the president leading by a significant margin. Consistent high polling for Obama in the winter led Public Policy Polling to write in April, “New Mexico is not going to be a swing state this year.”
Obama is polling remarkably well among key constituencies in the state. He is up 61-35 among women, 67-30 among Hispanics, and 56-35 among young voters. Over the last decade, New Mexico’s electorate has become more favorable for Democratic candidates. The heavily Democratic Hispanic voter population has increased and Albuquerque has leaned more toward Democrats.
Democrats Martin Heinrich and Michelle Lujan Grisham would certainly like help from Obama supporters in November. A high-turnout victory for Obama might help put them over the top in close contests for the open Senate and Congressional seats. Democrats hoping to gain significant ground in the state Legislature also need an Obama wave.
Does Mitt Romney stand a chance of turning New Mexico red in November? Susana Martinez proved just two years ago that the state can still support Republicans in statewide elections. She remains popular with New Mexicans, showing a 54 percent approval rating in April. Her high approval rating, however, does not seem to be translating into support for Romney.
Romney must win over the more of the state’s Hispanic voters if he wants any chance of competing. With his hard-line immigration stance, Romney will likely find this to be an uphill battle. This week, Romney began courting Hispanic voters by releasing an ad citing rising unemployment and poverty for Hispanics under Obama. Yesterday, he appointed Gov. Martinez to a Hispanic leadership team in his campaign.
Yet the forecast still looks favorable for Obama in the Land of Enchantment. The race will likely tighten as November nears. But compared to previous cycles, it does not seem like the presidential campaign will reach a fever pitch in New Mexico. If the race continues to trend clearly toward Obama, both candidates may shift their focus elsewhere. The candidates’ relative lack of attention to the state compared to previous cycles could lower voter turnout and dampen enthusiasm for important and closer contests for the Senate, House and State Legislature.