New Mexico, The Unlikely Presidential Bellwether
How the 47th State Became one of the Best Predictors of American Presidential Races
On the cold, blustery afternoon of January 6, 1912, during one of the deepest winter chills on the Potomac in decades, President William H. Taft signed the final proclamation admitting New Mexico as the 47th State in the Union before a delegation of territorial representatives.
“Well, it is all over. I am glad to give you life. I hope you will be healthy,” Taft stated, acknowledging the 70-year long battle for statehood. New Mexico could not return the favor. Less than seven months later the new state would cast its very first electoral college votes. All three would go to Taft’s challenger Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the eventual winner of the election. One hundred years later, in 2012, New Mexico sided with another winning Democrat by voting with Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney.
New Mexico has correctly sided with the eventual winner of US presidential elections 24/26 times, 92% of the time, second only to Ohio.
During that long, turbulent century the sparsely populated state racked up an impressive track record, mirroring the eventual presidential winner 24 of 26 times for a 92% accuracy rating. While that comes in only second to Ohio’s percentage of 93%, what is most puzzling to many is how a small southwestern managed to keep it’s finger on the national pulse so accurately versus more traditional bellwether states in the heartland of America.
Demographics in New Mexico
Any electoral analysis has to start by looking at demographics. New Mexico is small, containing just over 2 million residents. There is a small growth trend, but nothing matching the explosive growth of neighboring southwest states such as Colorado and Arizona. It is one of only four minority-majority states (along with Hawaii, California, and Texas), where non-white populations make up more than 50% of the state. Roughly 48% of the state identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2015, 10.5% Native American, 2.6% African-American, 1.9% Asian-Asian Pacific, and 38.4% White (non-Hispanic). That does not quite match up with the rest of the national numbers, where Hispanic or Latino sits at only 17.6% of the total population and White (Non-Hispanic) at 61.6%.
While there is ample demographic evidence to suggest that the rest of the nation is headed to a minority-majority national as well, New Mexico has historically been far ahead of the trend. Many Hispanic New Mexicans, particularly in the north and central parts of the state, claim to be descendants from Spanish colonial settlers dating as far back to the Don Juan de Oñate expedition in 1598. To this day many of the descendants of that population still identify as direct Spanish origin instead of Mexican.
Demographic Voting Trends
New Mexico is then a rare case study where much of the Hispanic population has been greatly Americanized by cultural trends over the 170 years of American sovereignty. Even so, following national Hispanic voting trends, the Hispanic population in the state has leaned toward Democrats in recent election cycles while the eastern portion of the state, which is heavily White Non-Hispanic, has leaned toward Republicans.
In the map above you can see the consolidation of north and central New Mexico, the heart and soul of the the native Hispanics population of the state, going deep blue for Obama, including counties with large Native American populations in the western part of the state and recent immigrant Hispanic populations from Mexico to the south. The eastern half of the state, mostly high plains with economic bases in energy and ranching, has more in common culturally with western Texas than New Mexico.
For a comparative map, we can look at the closest presidential election in recent history, when the state narrowly sided with Al Gore over George W. Bush by 366 votes out of 598,605 cast.
That minuscule margin was even smaller than in Florida that year, and actually correctly correlated with the candidate who attained the larger number of overall votes that election (Gore) though not the electoral college winner (Bush). You may note that while many of the blue and red counties match with 2012 the overall margins are weaker for Gore than Obama and stronger for Bush than for Romney and all county swings on the map favoring the Republican candidate. This all suggests that while there are “safe” blue and red counties across the state, the margins within those counties are quite reflective of larger individual trends which push the state in different directions depending on the year.
Indeed, just four years later the dilution would continue to swing right and President George W. Bush would win the state and national reelection in a close electoral race. It is notable that two of the few counties to shift darker blue that year were the north-central Taos and Santa Fe — two mostly rural counties that pulled in a small but influential far left-leaning White Non-Hispanic community from the 1960's-1990's due to being centers of New Age and art movements to supplement native Hispanic voters.
Growth vs. Stability
One additional note is the issue of overall population stability. With a historic Hispanic and Native American base population, along with a scarcity of resources for farming and other precious minerals, New Mexico remained a transit point to more lucrative, sparsely populated lands to the north and west for westwards bound American pioneers. With a lingering 1.3% growth rate New Mexico has never been a lucrative draw to the types of large scale emigration that can dramatically shift the political landscape of a state to the right or left. Indeed those trends are already playing out in high-growth states such as Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. Arizona is an especially striking example as it was once an underpopulated western half to New Mexico Territory that exploded in population growth after the 1950’s and now houses nearly 7 million total residents.
The lingering reason for the modest growth is that New Mexico remains poorer than other states in the region. While there was an burst of employment in the public sector when federal laboratories and military bases settled in-state after the 1940’s that also fueled an uptick in White Non-Hispanics moving into the state, private growth outside the main economic center of Albuquerque and it’s home of Bernalillo County has remained stagnant over the decades. The result is many young New Mexicans who grew up in rural parts of the state are relocating to the Albuquerque metro area while only attracting a small amount of outsiders into the state.
All of the forgoing factors create an unlikely and unexpected profile of a bellwether state. It is minority-majority, with nearly half it’s population claiming Hispanic descent and many of that group tracing their lineage to the Spanish colonists that first arrived in the region before the Mayflower landed in eastern Massachusetts. It is poor, with high unemployment and many jobs reliant on the federal government. Because it is poor it is not attractive to many emigrants and has stayed small relative to the region.
Yet the results speak for themselves. New Mexico nearly matches Ohio in correct presidential results, and has recently surpassed the traditional bellwether of Missouri, two more heavily populated states which more clearly reflect the demographic ethnic makeup of the nation.
In the end it might be those unique characteristics that make New Mexico so accurate. Rather than predicting results it is most likely that New Mexico, as a small state with an established, non-transient population, is simply more responsive to larger political undercurrents than the average state.
New Mexico’s unusual core population is culturally mainstream American but self identifies as Hispanic across both urban and rural portions of the state. This leaves a large percentage of the groups in state less tied to entrenched race based voting trends that dominated the deep south and Rocky Mountain west along strict party lines (and appear to be turning sections of the Midwest more right and other western states to the left). While there are historic strongholds for both the left and right along racial lines, those lines become diluted at times which suggest individual voters feel comfortable crossing party lines in state and national elections depending on the specific candidates at hand.
Additional influences outside of race then could be key. By being poorer and more reliant on the federal government local voters may be more sensitive to large scale national employment trends both good and bad. And due to the number of military veterans (which is large at 11.6% of the population both due to state poverty and the number of bases in the state) there may also be a better feel for the cost and necessity of foreign engagements and wars.
Perhaps most importantly of all the small ecosystem New Mexicans have carved out in the southwestern portion of the country, balancing the interests of white ranchers and Native American sovereign tribes and Hispanic political players, has remained relatively unchanged since President Taft signed over statehood in 1912. Lacking any large scale immigration shifts in either direction since the 1850's, and without a lot of outside attention for the ultimately small prize of 5 electoral college votes at stake, the state has been able to naturally follow along the national debate at its own pace out of the spotlight and respond accordingly.
“Well, it is all over. I am glad to give you life. I hope you will be healthy,” — President Taft on New Mexico statehood
With that in mind it might be good to keep an eye on New Mexico in the final weeks leading up to the 2016 election. While many predict New Mexico to be a safe shade of blue and call Hillary Clinton’s name that night (which historically bodes well for her chances at winning the entire prize), and expect the trend toward Democrats to continue to 2020 and beyond, it might be good to note the state currently has a twice elected Republican governor in office, and just had the first Republican headed House of Representatives in over 50 years swept into office in 2014. Large scale and small the state maintains it’s fingers on the pulse of the nation, even as the nation begins to reflect more of New Mexico in its demographic DNA.