Many signs in the 2012 election pointed to an increasingly Democratic electorate in New Mexico, state political experts say.
The trend is evidenced partly by President Barack Obama’s 10-point margin of victory on Tuesday, the first time since 2000 that New Mexico backed a Democrat in consecutive presidential elections.
Also suggesting a deeper “blue” for New Mexico was the 18-point victory claimed by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in the state’s 1st Congressional District, a district that before 2008 had been occupied by a Republican since 1969.
In the U.S. Senate race, Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, the 1st District incumbent, bested former Rep. Heather Wilson – who formerly represented the 1st District and is considered a moderate Republican – by 6 points in a contest where she never had the upper hand.
Each of those outcomes was the result of a stronger bloc of Democratic voters than New Mexico had previously known, said longtime New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff.
Democratic voting strength gained steam as the state’s population over the past decade moved away from rural, heavily Republican regions, such as the state’s east side, and into the larger cities of Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe, Sanderoff said.
Meanwhile, around the state, nearly 8 of every 10 new residents since 2000 identify themselves as Hispanic- a demographic group that registers with the Democratic Party about 70 percent of the time, Sanderoff said.
“This is a big trend. The continued growth of our cities and the continued growth of the Hispanic population will continue to favor Democrats over time,” Sanderoff said. “However, when the mood of the nation is Republican, or when Republicans have superior candidates, they will win.”
The long-running trend of shrinking populations in many of the state’s rural areas means many Republican strongholds have fewer votes to offset heavy Democratic voting in urban areas.
For example, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney dominated Tuesday’s voting in southeastern New Mexico’s oil patch counties of Lea, Chaves and Eddy, leading Obama in the strongly conservative region by more than 21,500 votes.
The Republican-leaning region has allowed Republican Rep. Steve Pearce to hold his 2nd Congressional District seat since 2003 with little challenge from Democrats.
However, Santa Fe County – the liberal seat anchoring Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s stake in the 3rd Congressional District since 2009 – gave Obama a net win of 34,700 votes there, offsetting Romney’s gains in the southeast, Sanderoff noted.
“They’re just as conservative as ever, but they have less clout than they used to have in the statewide pie,” Sanderoff said of the southeast.
In Bernalillo County – representing about one of every three ballots in the state – Obama won the county with a 42,700-vote surplus, according to election returns compiled by the Secretary of State’s Office.
In total, Obama won 18 of New Mexico’s 33 counties on Tuesday.
Heinrich, in his successful U.S. Senate bid, won 13 counties but was bolstered by wide margins of victory in the Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces areas, according to election returns.
UNM political science professor Lonna Atkeson said Democratic momentum in New Mexico this year might have more to do with the candidates who were running than permanent shifts in the electorate.
Atkeson notes New Mexico’s strong backing of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in 2010 as an example that Republicans can still win in a state where GOP candidates need Democratic “crossover” votes.
Democrats – long the the majority party in New Mexico – outnumber Republicans in registration 47 percent to 32 percent. Independents are a fast-growing segment of voter registration but still represent only 18 percent of the total.
“Clearly, people are still willing to cross over,” Atkeson said. “I think there’s a trend, and I think there’s reason to believe that the state is bluer than it used to be. On the other hand, it’s not clear to me that that pattern is going to hold, that different candidates or different policies can come in here and resonate with Democratic voters, and they would be willing to crossover again.”
While New Mexico’s Hispanic population is growing fast, Atkeson said, that group is among the state’s most likely to cross over to Republican votes.
While the trend of the 2012 election in New Mexico was clearly Democratic, turnout was down, according to unofficial statewide election returns.
At least 60,000 fewer votes were cast in New Mexico in this year’s presidential race than in 2008, a 7 percent decline.
Sanderoff said a detailed county-by-county comparison to 2008 vote totals is necessary to better understand whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to stay home in 2012.
But generally, some voters from both sides expressed disenchantment with their presidential choices this year.
“We know that there were some liberals who were not as turned on by Barack Obama, and we know there were some Republicans who thought Romney was not as true to the cause,” Sanderoff said.
New Mexico’s lower turnout in 2012 “is probably a combination of both,” he said.
— This article appeared on page A6 of the Albuquerque Journal