WASHINGTON — It's time for Democratic presidential candidates to look west. The 13 Western states could well be a crucial battleground in the 1988 election.
Early polls suggest this scenario: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri wins Iowa, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis triumphs in New Hampshire and Jesse Jackson and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee split the South. Thus, the 1988 Democratic nomination could be decided in the trench warfare of primaries and caucuses in such Western states as Oregon, Colorado, Montana and California.
Even Republican strategists admit that 1988 offers Democrats the best chance in a generation to recapture the West's 111 electoral votes. Edward J. Rollins, Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, predicted in 1984, "I think California is up for grabs after the Reagan period. I think the Republican pattern of voting in the presidential elections in the whole Pacific rim is up for grabs."
Gary Hart's 1984 race illustrated the beauty of a Western strategy: Indigenous Western campaign messages work in other parts of the country. Hart's essentially Western themes of innovative economic growth, respect for the environment and challenging the political Establishment excited voters in New Hampshire and Iowa.
So now is the time for Democrats to start framing messages with the West in mind. If the politics thus far is any indication, non-Western candidates could benefit from a crash course in what makes the West and its politics unique. Here are some campaigner do's and don'ts:
1) Educate yourself about the West's paradoxical relationship to government. For all the talk about Westerners wanting government off people's backs, activist government programs have been key to the region's development. Extensive federal water projects, symbolized by the great dams, have literally turned deserts into farm land. While today's fiscal realities dictate that public works projects meet cost-effectiveness standards, they remain part of the West's lifeblood: Private investment has followed public investment time and again. President Jimmy Carter's "take-no-prisoners" war on water projects didn't save much money but it seriously dampened Westerners' enthusiasm for him in the 1980 election.
The U.S. government owns an enormous amount of Western land, more than half the total area of Oregon alone. Managing that land is a mammoth job. Federal agencies the East and Midwest barely know exist, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, are powerful forces.
Of course, not all federal involvement is considered a plus. Defense-related work has provided economic diversification, but Westerners uneasily balance such economic growth against its environmental impact--from New Mexico's uranium industry to Utah's bomb silos to Washington state's nuclear-defense facilities. When co-existence between jobs and environmental quality seems threatened, as with the MX missile, Westerners often put public health and the environment first. This can translate into hard votes: Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) owes his election chiefly to his defiant stand against a proposed nuclear dump site.
2) Stress your political independence; losing your personal integrity is fatal. Look what happened to former Washington Sen. Slade Gordon: His 1986 reelection campaign was dealt a body blow by a deal he made with the White House to reverse his position on a key judicial nomination.
Which brings us to the next point: Westerners like their politicians squeaky clean. Hart's downfall was played out in the national arena but there was a distinctly Western tinge to the drama of a politician who couldn't live up to the high moral tone he had set for himself. The taint of impropriety can provoke Westerners to action unheard of in other regions: Several years ago, Oregonians recalled a state representative after allegations that, in campaign literature, he had claimed a degree he didn't have. Contrast this with the ethics problems of numerous New York legislators or the tribulations of Louisiana's governor.
3) Don't forget that there's more to the West than Los Angeles and San Francisco. After an important fund-raiser in Beverly Hills or Marin County, make sure you see the rest of the West. With the exception of California, Western states are used to personal--not media--politics.
4) Don't assume because you're familiar with the Eastern version of an issue that you know how it cuts in the West. In 1984, Geraldine A. Ferraro made this mistake. Aware of the federal power marketing agencies' financial troubles and, with the Eastern perspective that Western power is cheap, Ferraro announced her support for a Bonneville Power Administration debt restructuring plan.
Unfortunately, she didn't realize that forcing BPA to increase its rates (the restructuring's important side-effect) could have driven jobs out of the already depressed Northwest.