Because it was closed to the public, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s Memorial Day visit to Las Cruces did little to help him win over southern New Mexico Democrats who will take a hard look at Republican presidential candidate John McCain before deciding how to vote in November.
If Obama wants to win New Mexico – one of the most important swing states in the 2008 presidential election – he’ll have to return to the Las Cruces area at least once to hold a public rally and give voters a chance to see him in person.
Hillary Clinton won New Mexico’s Democratic presidential caucus in February, but it’s the reason she won that’s important to the November contest between Obama and McCain. Obama narrowly won northern New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District and the Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District, but Clinton easily won the more conservative 2nd Congressional District in southern New Mexico by several thousand votes, which propelled her to a statewide victory of 1,709 votes out of about 150,000 cast.
In Doña Ana County – the most populous county in the 2nd District and a Democratic stronghold – Clinton easily won by about 1,200 votes out of almost 9,500 cast.
The majority of the 200,000 residents of Doña Ana County are Democrats, but they’re also conservative. Many are Hispanic and veterans – both populations Obama has had difficulty courting. Unless Clinton is Obama’s running mate in November, many may be inclined to take a serious look at McCain before deciding whether to vote for Obama.
With that reality as the backdrop, Obama upset many with the way Monday’s visit was handled. Southern New Mexico is used to one visit, at most, from presidential candidates. So when the Obama campaign announced late last week that Monday’s visit would be open to the public, people cancelled their Memorial Day plans. They waited for details about the venue and how to get tickets.
And they learned mid-way through the weekend, when they saw the news on TV on Saturday evening or read the newspapers on Sunday, that the Obama campaign would instead hold a closed, invitation-only event. A candidate many rural voters view as elitist – fair or not – was finally coming to their town but, instead of speaking to them, he would be hanging out with his pal, Gov. Bill Richardson, and a small group of veterans rounded up primarily by Richardson’s people.
Meanwhile, McCain was in Albuquerque holding a public rally.
Closing the event wasn’t necessarily a mistake. The small, picturesque meeting with veterans was touching on a day designed to remember those who have died fighting for America’s freedom. But announcing the event as public, then later closing it, was certainly a bad move.
Polls reveal Obama’s challenge in N.M.
The situation Obama faces in Doña Ana County is true in much of rural New Mexico. There are many rural, Hispanic Democratic counties in the 3rd District that also went for Clinton on Feb. 5, but Obama’s huge win in Santa Fe offset those losses. In the newest SurveyUSA poll, which had Obama and McCain tied at 44 percent apiece in the Land of Enchantment, Obama had a five-point advantage in the state’s urban center, Bernalillo County, but trailed by two points in the rest of the state, which is primarily rural.
The survey of 600 registered voters, conducted May 16-19, had a margin of error of 4.1 percent.
The newest poll from Rasmussen Reports is even more telling. That poll, released May 17, had Obama leading McCain 50 percent to 41 percent in New Mexico. The survey of 500 likely voters was conducted May 14 and has a margin of error of 4 percent.
While the poll found that Obama had picked up some new Democratic support because of the perception that the Democratic presidential primary is over and he’s the winner, 21 percent of New Mexico Democrats said they plan to vote for McCain – a number that has remained constant in the Rasmussen Reports polls even as Obama has moved from a Democratic contender to the likely nominee.
Gore narrowly won New Mexico in 2000. Bush narrowly won it in 2004. Pundits have figured out that New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, taken together, make up a hotly contested region with a significant number of electoral votes that can be won by either party. The three Western states are arguably as important as Florida or Ohio, and the fact that Obama and McCain both chose to spend Memorial Day in New Mexico speaks to its prominence in the race.
Obama made clear, during his visit to Las Cruces, that he is going after voters in those Western states. McCain is doing the same. New Mexico, as a conservative Democratic state whose voters aren’t quite on board with the politics of Obama or McCain, will be won by the candidate who spends the most time meeting with voters on their turf. Albuquerque will be a battleground, but to win New Mexico, the successful candidate will also have to spend significant time in the south.
Editor’s note: Heath Haussamen’s weekly blogs are part of NewWest.Net/Politics’ “Diary of a Mad Voter” feature, a group blog, published in partnership with the Denver Post’s Politics West intended give a glimpse into the hearts and minds of several independent-minded voters and thinkers in the Rocky Mountain West in the ’08 election cycle. For more columns check in with www.newwest.net/madvoter. And for more information on each of the bloggers, click here.