Thursday, June 16, 2011

The New West: Think Light Rail, Not Covered Wagon

Among observers of American politics, there's a widespread misperception of the West as a libertarian haven that rejects government services in favor of a strict ideology of self-reliance.

That misperception is rooted in cultural depictions of the West as a destination for homesteaders, cowboys, and others looking to escape the rigid traditions of the East and create a new life on the frontier. In this vision, Westerners--by their very nature--are opposed to obtaining any of their basic needs through the help of an entity perceived as inflexible and impersonal--least of all the government.

While there's an element of truth in this stereotype--Westerners, after all, do value independence and individualism--the idea of a "libertarian West" is certainly challenged by a recent Brookings Institution report on urban public transit in the U.S. That report showed that 15 of the 20 public transit systems that rank highest on a combined score of transit coverage and job access are in the West. While many of those transit systems exist in coastal cities like Honolulu and Los Angeles, a surprising percentage of the these public transportation systems are in cities like El Paso, Texas, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Denver, Colorado--places more-often associated with covered wagon than light rail. Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Las Vegas were also among the 20 highest-ranking cities.

According to Brookings, Western metro areas are "much more likely than others to engage in comprehensive planning with growth containment policies, employ infrastructure regulations such as impact fees, and administer programs designed to boost the supply of affordable housing... Their more urbanized form puts transit within reach of larger shares of their populations."

But there's more to the story. Western residents, an increasingly large percentage of whom live in urban areas, have also been willing to approve government investments in public transit when they see tangible benefits. Voters in cities like Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and others have all approved sales tax increases to finance public transit projects like light rail systems within the last several decades of population growth. These electoral outcomes are consistent with PNW's research, which has has shown that Western voters understand the important role state and local governments play in preserving a first-class quality of life.

As the West continues to fuel the nation's population growth, expect continued dedication on the part of Westerners to and the development and maintenance of first class transit systems.

Friday, June 10, 2011

New Poll: Tea Party Trouble Brewing for New Mexico GOP

"Today I stand here not just as Lieutenant Governor, but as a fellow Tea Party patriot," then-prospective Senate Candidate John Sanchez told a meeting of the East Mountain, New Mexico Tea Party group in March, 2011. By most accounts, Sanchez--now officially in the race--will rely on the support of Tea Party groups and other right-wing organizations in his bid to upset Representative Heather Wilson for the GOP nomination.

As Sanchez and Wilson compete for the GOP Senate nomination, they'll undoubtedly take great pains to harness the organizational energy and enthusiasm of a national Tea Party movement that was widely considered to be a driving factor behind the Republican success of 2010. However, as Republican candidates vie for Tea Party approval, supporters of the party ought to be wary of embracing the two-year-old libertarian movement too enthusiastically.

PNW’s recent statewide poll in NM shows growing disapproval of the Tea Party movement in the Land of Enchantment. Fully 40 percent of New Mexicans have a negative view of the movement – which is up 12 points from January 2010. In fact, more New Mexicans (31 percent) have a "strongly unfavorable" opinion of the movement in 2011 than had a generally negative ("strongly" plus "somewhat negative") in 2010. The Tea Party appeal is limited to a consistent set of voter--34 percent have favorable opinion of the Tea Party, which is roughly equal to the 33 percent who had a positive opinion last year.

While this trend in New Mexico is roughly consistent with national public polling on the Tea Party, the news carries particular weight in New Mexico, a state with a very idiosyncratic electorate.

PNW found that disapproval of the Tea Party was pronounced among key demographics like self-described moderates (51% unfavorable) and Hispanic voters (40% unfavorable).

Moreover, registered Democrats--48 percent of registered voters in New Mexico--have a resoundingly negative view of the Tea Party. 57 percent of Democrats see the Tea Party unfavorably , and only 18 percent approve. Facing such a significant registration disadvantage, any Republican looking to win a statewide election will need to capture a large swath of Democratic voters. For example public polling just weeks before the 2010 midterms showed Republican Gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez supported by a very significant 27 percent of registered Democrats. Martinez ended up winning the general election by a solid, but not astronomical margin of 54-46. PNW's polling shows that a Republican strongly associated with the Tea Party should expect challenges courting Democratic voters on the level that Martinez did.