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Monday, July 28, 2008

Changes in Fast-Growing States May Sway Election

More Younger Voters Favor Democrats In Colorado, Nevada

Some of the nation's fastest-growing states are undergoing demographic changes that could transform Republican strongholds into swing states in 2008 -- and even trend toward Democrats in the long run.

Many of the new voters in these states -- younger, with a higher mix of minorities -- typically lean toward Democrats, polls and voting statistics show. "The youthful, new minority populations of the fast-growing battlegrounds reflect much of America's future," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The shifts are particularly noteworthy in Colorado and Nevada, both of which President Bush carried in 2004. They are high on the target list this year for Barack Obama's campaign. A similar population shift has been seen in New Hampshire, the North's fastest-growing swing state, which President Bush won in 2000 but narrowly lost in 2004.

Both presidential candidates are reacting to the shift, making these fast-growing states key battlegrounds this year. The campaign of Illinois Sen. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has outlined a strategy that involves competing in a handful of southern states that usually lean Republican, including Georgia and North Carolina. Meanwhile, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has been visiting Nevada in a bid to keep what once was a reliably red state from turning blue.

Demographics, of course, aren't destiny; they're just one ingredient in a cocktail of factors that could tip an election one way or the other. Issues like the war in Iraq or the ailing economy and high gas prices will be among the driving factors for voters in swing states and elsewhere. Also, the decades-long migration of Americans to fast-growing states in the Sunbelt and Mountain West has slowed as a slumping housing market discourages many from moving.

Even so, the number of Democratic newcomers is now large enough to challenge the Republican status quo in some areas. "The Sunbelt in the West is probably quite competitive," says Mark Gersh, a voter analyst for the Democrats. Democrats are "probably going to focus more on New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado" -- their best chances in the region -- to capitalize on minorities and young voters energized by Sen. Obama.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that, nationwide, likely voters between 18 and 34 prefer Sen. Obama to Sen. McCain, 53% to 40%. That dynamic is making Colorado, once staunchly Republican, increasingly friendly territory for Sen. Obama -- a big reason why the upcoming Democratic National Convention will be held in Denver.

Since 2000, Colorado's voting-eligible population has increased 13%, the fifth-largest increase in the country. The under-35 population has increased about 9%, while the share of white residents has declined 3.5 percentage points since 2000. In 2004, George W. Bush won 52% of the votes while John Kerry took 47%. But also that year, Democrat Ken Salazar was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first Democratic senator elected in Colorado since 1992, and the Democrats swept to control of the state legislature. Two years later Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, succeeded a retiring Republican governor in a landslide victory.

Nevada, another long-time Republican stronghold, has been among the fastest-growing states of the past decade. Between 2000 and 2007, about 350,000 people moved to Nevada from another state, including unemployed manufacturing workers from the North and neighboring Californians pushed out by rising real-estate prices in the late 1990s and first half of this decade. Many of the newcomers are Democrats. As of June, the state had 559,814 registered Democrats and 487,685 registered Republicans. Eight years ago, the state was almost evenly split, with 386,202 Democrats and 384,459 Republicans, according to the Nevada Secretary of State.

While some of the fastest-growing states are attracting minorities, that doesn't automatically translate into a boon for Democrats. Many Hispanics, for example, can't vote because they are too young or aren't citizens. Others don't vote even though they're eligible to do so. If past patterns hold, in 2008 only 19 out of 100 Hispanics will vote, compared with 40 blacks out of 100 and 52 whites, according to an analysis of Census data by Mr. Frey.

Still, over the long run, a growing Hispanic population bodes well for Democrats. Voter participation remains low in states that have only recently started adding large numbers of immigrants, including Georgia and North Carolina. But it's rising in states where the immigrant populations are long-established. In New Mexico, for example, Hispanics make up 40% of the population and 30% of the voting population.

New Hampshire is the only fast-growing swing state in the North, and much of its population rise is a result of Boston's sprawl, which has reached over the border. The state has seen a massive population turnover, as natives leave and newcomers move in. Roughly six out of 10 New Hampshire residents were born in another state; about a quarter of the people who are eligible to vote this year weren't New Hampshire voters in 2001, according to an analysis by Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute.

Demographic changes also are occurring in slow-growing swing states such as Ohio and Michigan, which are losing young people to other states and not attracting as many immigrants. But it's harder to gauge the political impact. Many of these states' older populations were reliably Republican in the 1980s and 1990s. But with the economy stumbling and voter dissatisfaction rising, some of these voters may move to Sen. Obama.

President Bush won Ohio in 2000 and 2004 with 50% and 51% of the vote, respectively. Meantime, Michigan, beset by economic woes, went Democratic. Former Vice President Al Gore won in Michigan in 2000 and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry prevailed in 2004, each with 51% of the vote.

By: Conor Dougherty and Sara Murray
Wall Street Journal; July 12, 2008