Swing-Time in New Mexico
A drive through the sprawling west side of Albuquerque, where instant cookie-cutter suburbs of affordable sand-colored single-family homes and condos are mushrooming among dusty, barren hills, serves as a fitting metaphor for what is the no-man's land of American politics--the Undecided Center. It's here, both politically and geographically, that this election is likely to be decided. Both candidates, both parties, scramble in figuring out how to appeal to the families taking up residence in places called Country Meadows, The Trails or Shadow Ridge, where the only cultural landmarks are a Walgreens or a Chili's. The RNC, DNC, NRA, organized labor, the energy lobbies and the League of Conservation Voters, among many, many others, will be politically bombarding these neighborhoods in the weeks to come, trying to influence and capture them.
But if either Democrats or Republicans really knew the answer to what will move voters in the middle, elections probably wouldn't be so close in New Mexico. Even as voters in this district were giving George W. Bush a narrow win in 2000 and John Kerry a narrow win in 2004, they were also re-electing Heather Wilson. Indeed, the odd contours of voter turnout, of crossover voting and the nearly 20 percent of registered voters who declare as independents make political forecasting in these parts a risky business.
Inside the Madrid campaign the phrase "the 13 percent" is used as shorthand to describe the much-vaunted undecided vote. The number derives from the first reliable poll of the campaign, earlier this year, which showed Wilson at 44 percent, Madrid at 43 percent and undecided at 13 percent. Madrid knows that the issue of how to capture this undecided middle is what bedevils the Democrats and also that strictly appealing to these voters often neuters and mutes the party.
"I think Democrats need to find their voice," Madrid said as we concluded our conversation. "We need to speak up in a principled way and take positions. And I don't think we've always spoken up enough. Sometimes we're too worried about that 13 percent. But we need to speak to everyone the same way about the same issues and not be afraid of them. What is leadership if not that?"