Why you should care
Because through a historic oddity, the West isn’t getting Democratic love.
In an attempt to give it more sway over the nominating process, California recently moved its presidential primary from June to early March. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — if he becomes governor next year — are all attracting early 2020 buzz. But in addition to a large field, they would have to overcome their region’s historic dry spell.
In the nearly 200-year history of the party, Democrats have never nominated a candidate from a Western state for president or vice president.
Some of the drought can be attributed to the fact that the underpopulated West was not a true political force until the end of the 19th century. Fine, but Republicans put up a Westerner as the party’s first-ever nominee — California’s John Frémont — as early as 1856. California Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan became president, Arizonans Barry Goldwater and John McCain won the nomination and several Westerners appeared on the vice presidential side of the ticket — most recently Wasilla, Alaska’s own Sarah Palin.
The trend is all the more strange considering the power the West has in today’s party.
There have been some near misses on the Democratic side. California Gov. Jerry Brown came in second to Bill Clinton in the presidential nominating process in 1992, as did Colorado’s Gary Hart in 1984, to Walter Mondale. Lyndon B. Johnson came from Texas and George McGovern hailed from South Dakota, but Democrats strayed no farther west. (Barack Obama counts for the state he represented in the Senate, Illinois, even though he was born in Hawaii — as far west as it gets.)
“It is at least an odd footnote so far in American political history that this has been the case,” says Eric Ostermeier, political scientist at the University of Minnesota and founder of the website Smart Politics, who has studied the trend. It’s not for lack of qualified candidates. In the 13 western states, Democrats have won 214 gubernatorial contests since 1900 and 248 U.S. Senate popular-vote elections since the early 1900s, according to Ostermeier’s calculations. Presidents and vice presidents usually are governors or senators first, and both numbers are higher than those for the GOP.
The trend is all the more strange considering the power the West has in today’s party. A recent state Senate victory in Washington sealed it beyond any doubt: From top to bottom, the West Coast is a blue wall, with Democrats in control of governors’ mansions and legislatures in Washington, Oregon and California. The West is home to liberal policy laboratories for hiking the minimum wage, expanding health care and legalizing marijuana. Party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi (California) in the U.S. House and the recently departed Harry Reid (Nevada) in the U.S. Senate come from the Pacific time zone.
But there could be sound political strategy at work. Longtime California Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland hopes the streak continues — at least when it comes to the West Coast. Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member, points to states President Donald Trump flipped — Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — as the corridor to 270 electoral votes. Voters there, he says, probably would not relate to a politician from his neck of the woods. “They would be labeled as West Coast liberals,” Mulholland says. “That’s what the voter in the ‘270 belt’ would remember.” Better a winner than a Westerner.