With starker rural vs urban divide and rise in independents, New Mexico follows national trends

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Sylvia Ulloa/New Mexico In Depth

At first glance, the 2020 elections produced a series of largely predictable results.

Democrat Joe Biden garnered New Mexico’s five electoral votes, winning by almost 11 percentage points, slightly improving on Hillary Clinton’s eight-point margin in the state four years ago while winning the same 14 counties. Democrats in the state Legislature retained their sizable majorities, even as a number of moderate and conservative Democratic senators were replaced by progressives. And while Republican Yvette Herrell carried the state’s more conservative 2nd congressional district, ousting Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small, her win wasn’t surprising given that since 1981 Democrats have held the seat for a total of four years. 

But look closely, and the 2020 election results plus long-standing population and voter registration shifts over the last decade tell a story of a state in the throes of political trends sweeping across the country.

There’s a growing divide between rural and urban New Mexico, with a population shift to urban centers that comes with an increasingly stark political flavor.

“New Mexico is becoming more polarized,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, Inc., a prominent go-to Albuquerque firm for New Mexico polling and analysis.  “The eastern side of the state continues to vote more conservatively. Albuquerque continues to vote more blue, at higher margins. This is a significant factor in New Mexico politics.”

Voter registration data from the last 10 years reveal a Democratic party losing ground as a share of registered voters in most New Mexico counties, but gaining strength in growing urban centers. The Republican party has made modest gains in its share of registered voters in rural counties with declining populations.  

At the same time, independent voters are on the rise across the state, complicating the ability to read the tea leaves for how New Mexico will trend politically over the coming decade.

An increasingly polarized New Mexico

Los Alamos County stands out as the lone place in the state where the share of voters registered as Democrats has substantially grown. Relatively affluent with an unusually high proportion of college graduates, Los Alamos resembles other places in the country where Democrats have made substantial gains with college-educated white voters.

Meanwhile, the Democratic share of voters has remained relatively stable in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties, the urban center of the state. But, the party has lost ground as a percentage of registered voters in all other counties, in some places by well more than 10%. The outcome in 2020 was a much higher percentage of voters in Republican strongholds going to Donald Trump and other Republicans on the ballot. 

“Donald Trump won by 60 percentage points in Lea County,” noted Sanderoff about the recent 2020 election. “He won 79% to 19%. Whereas, even last time, he won by 48 percentage points.”

But the Democratic decline in voter registration share in rural counties is accompanied by a population decline in those areas as well, presenting challenges to Republican candidates hoping to win statewide.

“The east side of the state in 1970 was responsible for nearly 25% of the votes cast. Now, it’s lucky if it’s responsible for 15% of all votes cast,” said Sanderoff.  “So, the cities are growing. Albuquerque and Las Cruces become more progressive, vote more blue. Although conservative areas remain conservative and even more so, they’re not keeping pace with population growth.”

The following interactive county maps show the decline of Democratic voter share in rural areas, and the deep increase in Republican gains in eastern New Mexico. Hover over each county to see how the voter share has increased or declined by party.

The growing urban/rural political divide revealed itself most clearly in state senate elections this year, where Democrats increased their majority by one seat, giving them a 27 to 15 edge. While they lost two rural seats to the Republican party, they picked up three seats in the Albuquerque Metro area. More accurately, they picked up suburban districts, where Democrats have been gaining nationally as well. 

“Our best definition of suburbia would be the northeast heights of Albuquerque,” said Sanderoff. “Two years ago, the Democrats flipped seven Republican house seats in the northeast heights and the west side. In this election, they flipped three Albuquerque metro suburban Republican state senate seats.”

Despite these trends, Sanderoff says statewide elections remain competitive for Republicans.

In 2020, New Mexico Republicans running for office performed better than Donald Trump. Most notably, Yvette Herrell won the 2nd Congressional District seat, booting incumbent Democrat Xochitl Torres Small with a definitive victory, in contrast to the 2018 squeaker in which Torres Small defeated Herrell. But GOP candidates who lost did better than Trump as well. Republican Mark Ronchetti came within six points of defeating Democratic congressman Ben Ray Lujan for the open U.S. senate seat created after Democrat Tom Udall decided to retire.

“Mark Ronchetti got 16,000 more votes than Trump,” said Sanderoff. “So we can conclude that, you know, perhaps there were 16,000 people who voted for Biden and chose not to vote for Donald Trump, who then voted for Mark Ronchetti.”

Sanderoff noted similar outcomes for most Republican judges who lost but by much smaller percentages than Trump.

“I think this election was a referendum on Donald Trump,” he added, noting that down-ballot races are impacted by the top of the ticket.

Sanderoff said that two years from now, when there won’t be a presidential candidate on the ballot, the Republican party will likely make some gains if they have good candidates and the mood is right. “Why? It’s the party not in the White House that always picks up gains at the national and local level.”

Rising independent voters

Since 1990, the percentage of New Mexico voters declining to state their party affiliation — independent voters, in other words — has quadrupled. In the last 10 years alone, the number of independent voters has increased from roughly 16% in 2010 to 21.5% in 2020.

“A lot of young people are rejecting both major political parties,” said Sanderoff. “The independent voter, if you look at the age distribution, is much younger than let’s say, registered Democrats or registered Republicans. They’re younger. And because they’re younger, those people are less likely to embrace the Democratic or Republican Party.”

Despite the fact that independent voters now account for over one fifth of the state’s pool of registered voters, that hasn’t yet translated into a major political shift for the state’s politics.

“If you look at the turnout rate among independents, it’s lower than Democrats or Republicans,” said Sanderoff. Despite substantial new initiatives by organizations and the state to register new voters, turnout remains an issue, he said. “A lot of these organizations are being aggressive and being successful in registering voters, but they don’t always vote.”

Yet as these trends continue, Sanderoff speculated that the growing crop of independent voters could ultimately come to have a moderating effect on the state’s political culture.

“It’s not many years from now that the percentage of independents are going to exceed the percentage of Republicans. When that happens, they’re less likely to be taken for granted,” he said.

“I think that it could encourage more candidates to move towards the center, or at a minimum, to not be perceived as being extremely partisan and supporting their party over possible other policy positions.”

Aliya Uteuova contributed to this reported.

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