Staking a Claim to Western Voters

By Beacon Staff

The bumpy, twisting, occasionally rutted and seemingly endless road to the White House has taken a detour through Montana, leading Democratic candidates and a former president from Havre south along Interstate 15 to Butte, and west on Interstate 90 to Missoula.

Last week presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, along with former President Bill Clinton, descended on Montana, hoping to make it their own “Last Best Place,” and basking the state in more national political attention than any election in recent history, perhaps ever. And while Democrats dominated the media spotlight, just a few days earlier the top GOP strategist, Republican National Committee Chairman Robert Mike Duncan, made a decidedly lower-profile visit to the state, raising funds and meeting with party leaders to ensure delivery of Montana in November for presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain.

With its three electoral votes, and relatively small number of delegates for either party’s primary, Montana is a bit player on the stage of presidential politics. But this year could be different. The Democratic primary is so close that no victory is insignificant and five of Montana’s superdelegates remain undecided. Republicans are confident that as a moderate Arizona senator, McCain will continue to carry the West for the GOP, while Democratic strategists are salivating over his weak Western primary performance and believe 2008 is a year in which they can make significant inroads here – with either Clinton or Obama.

Political observers disagree on whether Democrats have a real shot at winning in Montana and throughout the West. And while party strategists sound – predictably – more confident, the ways in which they describe their candidate and their opponents provide a window into how the Democrats’ primary battle may unfold, and the issues upon which the general election will be fought.

McCain: stronger than he looks
Duncan believes McCain can easily overcome his Western primary losses in a general election. McCain finished third in Montana’s Feb. 5 GOP caucus with 22 percent, behind Ron Paul and Mitt Romney – both of whom are viewed as more conservative than McCain. While emphasizing that Republicans don’t take Montana or the West for granted, Duncan noted that the GOP has not lost Montana since 1992, when Ross Perot siphoned enough votes from George H.W. Bush to give a narrow victory to Bill Clinton (the first Democrat to win here since Lyndon Johnson).

“We believe that our values, the values of less government, lower taxes, individual responsibility, and strong national defense are more in line with the values of the West than Democrats,” Duncan said, while passing through Kalispell on March 30. “(McCain’s) from the West. He’s lived the issues of land and water from a Western perspective and understands it certainly better than either Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama.”

In a broad signal of what the themes will be in the general election, Duncan touted McCain’s experience and military background, while questioning Obama’s short time in the Senate and criticizing Clinton as someone who changes positions on issues like immigration and trade. Duncan also asserted that McCain’s views on gun rights are more in line with the West than either Democratic candidate.

But a March 27 memo circulated within the Democratic National Committee points out that McCain has won only his home state of Arizona out of the six Western primary contests so far. And even there he failed to achieve a majority, taking 48 percent of the vote, what the memo describes as “an ominous sign heading into the general election.”

Democratic National Committee spokesman Luis Miranda said that through seven years of a Republican presidency, with a military stretched thin and a bloated government, the GOP can no longer run on platforms of strong national defense and limited government.

“They’ve alienated a lot of Western voters where there’s sort of an independent streak,” Miranda added. “That real, marked shift to the far right at the national level has really hurt them in Montana.”

Democrats are also demonstrating to Westerners that they can govern, Miranda added, pointing out that there were no Democratic governors in the Rocky Mountain West in 2000, while five hold office today. Acknowledging Westerners’ inclination toward limited government, Miranda said there is a time and a place for federal intervention, and pointed to the Hurricane Katrina response as a place where the federal government failed to play a larger role in responding to a catastrophe.

“At the end of the day, I think people understand that government has some basic functions that it needs to fulfill,” Miranda added. “There is definitely a place and a responsibility that is more crystallized after we’ve seen these types of debacles.”

Edge: Obama, then again…
But which Democrat will take on McCain? While there are nearly two months between now and the June 3 primary – a political eternity – most indicators currently favor Obama. A recent Washington Post analysis compared the Obama-Clinton contest in Montana to the 2006 Democratic primary for the U.S Senate, between eventual winner Jon Tester and state Auditor John Morrison. Tester’s victory derived largely from generating massive turnout in Missoula and Helena, two college towns similar to areas where Obama typically does well. Obama has been organizing in Montana longer than Clinton, and recently opened offices in Missoula and Helena.

No recent poll data exists to shed any light on what Montanans think of Obama or Clinton as the race stands currently. A December poll published in Lee Newspapers showed Clinton beating Obama, 29 percent to 17 percent, but that was before John Edwards dropped out of the race, whose 19 percent of voters may have switched to Obama. A November poll taken by the political science department at MSU-Billings showed Obama with the highest approval rating: 47 percent to Clinton’s 30 percent. But perhaps the most telling statistic from that poll shows Clinton with high negative ratings from Republicans and independents – a potential disadvantage in Montana’s open primary.

“Clinton has the highest negatives in the state; a plurality of independents and Republicans oppose her,” said MSU-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson. “No matter how Clinton fares among Democrats, a lot of independent voters rate Obama higher than Clinton.”

But an Obama victory is by no means assured. While he has won caucuses in Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado, Clinton tends to do better in primaries. And high voter turnout makes the outcome difficult to predict. While about 108,200 votes were cast in the Tester-Morrison race, tens of thousands more Montanans could vote in June. And Clinton could counter Obama in blue-collar industrial Democratic towns like Butte and Great Falls – areas where Bill Clinton visited. James Lopach, chairman of the political science department at the University of Montana, points out that a June primary could disadvantage Obama in that students are no longer on campus, which could deflate some of the Illinois senator’s momentum.

Wilson and Lopach agree that the small gain in delegates Obama or Clinton could pick up in Montana are less important than the sheer significance of any victory at this point in the protracted race.

“Given the margin between Clinton and Obama, I’m pretty sure that Montana isn’t going to make the difference,” Wilson said, “but it does matter just in terms of winning another state.”

Montana’s Real Relevance
Looking ahead to the general election, Wilson and Lopach agree that McCain is stronger in Montana than the results of the GOP caucus reveal, since there will be a much higher number of voters participating in the general election than could vote in the caucus.

“McCain has a definite advantage over either Obama or Clinton in Montana,” Wilson said. “Democrats nationally, absolutely, positively have a big advantage, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will play the same way in Montana.”

But disapproval of President Bush runs high in Montana. Lopach believes the state could swing either way, with Obama having a better chance of picking up undecided voters against McCain.

As for whether McCain or the Democratic nominee is stronger on such Western issues as the environment, gun rights or energy development is irrelevant, Lopach said. Voters may choose a state legislator or governor based on those issues, he added, but when choosing a president, even Westerners will likely base their vote on three fundamental issues: the candidate’s character, the state of the economy, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An economy that falters through the summer and deteriorating conditions in Iraq will not help McCain.

It remains to be seen if either Clinton or Obama will return to Montana, and that will depend on the outcome of May primaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana. But if the Democratic race remains competitive, Montana’s moment in the sun could last a little longer than just last week.

Related: Obama in Montana: Hope, Change and Fly-fishing

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