New Mexico, Land of Enchanting Politics

The politics of New Mexico reflect its position at the crossroads of multiple cultures, polities, and societies. Today, Split Ticket dives into past and present political developments in New Mexico to help deconstruct and analyze the state’s politics as we head into another election season. 

The full report is available here – below is an abridged summary of our findings.

In short – there are three major racial groups in the state: whites, Latinos, and Native Americans. Each has its own story and its own diversity of political traditions. Voters in all three can be as liberal as a Los Alamos physicist or as conservative as a Hobbs oilman. In order to understand the true diversity of the state’s voters, we have broken down the state into seven regions. They are listed below:

  • Albuquerque (core ABQ metro counties)
  • Dinetah (three Native-heavy northwestern counties)
  • Frontera (southwestern NM centered on Las Cruces)
  • Little Texas (southeastern NM oil country)
  • Northeast
  • Novo Mexico (rural Hispanic counties north and east of Santa Fe)
  • Santa Fe (Santa Fe + Los Alamos)
Throughout all of the regions, analyses of turnout patterns confirm that Latino voters suffer a higher drop-off in midterm elections than white voters. The exception to this rule is the Hispanos of Novo Mexico, descendants of the original Spanish conquistadors who settled the region; their voting patterns perhaps mirror a higher degree of assimilation into white political culture. Interestingly, Native American voters punch above their weight and suffer a minimal drop-off, which would be an advantageous dynamic for New Mexico Democrats. The Native share of the electorate only decreased 1 percentage point between 2016 and 2018, from 9% to 8%. From a Democratic perspective, maintaining a high minority share of the electorate is critical. From a Republican perspective, continuing to build on Trump’s gains with Latino voters is the solution to blunting Democratic momentum.

Pictured above are the racial voting splits for the Albuquerque region between 2016 president, 2018 governor, and 2020 president. Democrats have steadily improved with white voters by 6-7% each cycle. On the flip side, Republicans have begun to chip at Democratic-leaning Latinos. This is a pattern that is repeated elsewhere throughout the state – in some regions by double digits. 

Albuquerque is a region with many urban college-educated white voters, so let’s look at a region where most whites are rural and do not hold college degrees: the Northeast. The result, shown above, is predictable, with whites giving North Korea-level margins of support to the GOP. This is consistent with partisan data from similar areas such as the Texas/Oklahoma Panhandles and far southeastern Colorado. We see in both graphs that Michelle Lujan Grisham, the 2018 Democratic candidate for governor, improved dramatically with Native Americans, and that Biden mostly maintained that advantage. 

Understanding these trends, let’s look to 2022 now. To win as a Republican in New Mexico, you need several things to happen at once: 
  1. an excellent national environment
  2. substantial vote-switching in the Albuquerque metro
  3. a highly favorable turnout differential
  4. An unpopular Democratic candidate running
With Republicans leading Democrats in the generic congressional ballot by a point and with Biden approvals underwater by 8, the first point is well within the realm of possibility for Republicans. As for point two, we can look to 2020, where Mark Ronchetti managed to generate large ticket splits in the wealthier, whiter suburbs of Albuquerque that swung heavily for Biden at the same time. On point three, nobody can foretell how turnout operations will go in a state one year out, but Virginia and New Jersey show that a good environment is often coupled with a favorable partisan turnout gap. 
The last point is the toughest to assess. Incumbent Democratic governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has a strong brand in New Mexico, having served as the state’s Secretary of Health, representing the First Congressional District for six years, and winning in a landslide in her 2018 gubernatorial election. An August SurveyUSA poll also found her above water by a point in net approval. However, her candidacy has some weaknesses, including a few scandals that have resurfaced recently, and it is certainly possible for Mark Ronchetti to capitalize on this. A confluence of these factors, combined with the possibility of continued Democratic backsliding with Latino voters, represents a number of good angles for Republicans next year, and a flip of the governorship is very possible. 
At the heart of the matter, however, New Mexico is a Biden +11 state and is more than 6 points left of the nation. Nowadays, the single strongest predictor of how a state will vote in a midterm election is its partisan lean relative to the nation as a whole, and this is the biggest factor working in the favor of Democrats. Trends with college-educated whites in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are dangerous for the GOP. Even if whites are trending leftward, they are still a key GOP base, much as Latinos are for Democrats. If the GOP cannot win a significant amount of white voters, their path to victory narrows greatly. In aggregate, there is some danger to Democrats, but the raw fundamentals still favor Grisham – Split Ticket here confirms a Leans Democratic rating for the governorship. 
Looking to the House races, all three will be competitive to some degree. The first (Melanie Stansbury – D) takes in most of the Democratic-trending Albuquerque suburbs and stretches southeast to absorb some red territory from other seats. This seat may be close in 2022, but in the longer-term, Stansbury should be elected without trouble. This seat is Likely Democratic

The second district is designed to eliminate Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell from the delegation, splitting Little Texas into three and adding hundreds of thousands of new Albuquerque-area voters, most of whom lean Democratic. The new seat is Biden-won by six points, and Herrell may only be saved by the redness of the national environment. This seat is a Tossup

Finally, the third, encompassing most of Novo Mexico and the Dinetah region, now stretches as far south as Hobbs. Hundreds of thousands of new voters with no connection to incumbent Teresa Leger Fernandez have now been added to the seat, many of whom are lower-education and middle-income Latinos (a rightward-swinging demographic). Given that Native voters are a fairly reliable presence for Democrats and given the presence of both Santa Fe and Los Alamos in this district (both of which are heavily Democratic), this seat looks a bit better for Leger Fernandez than one might initially believe. However, Democrats cannot rely purely on Santa Fe and Los Alamos here; they are still somewhat reliant on blue-collar Latinos like Novo Mexico Hispanos, and this gives the GOP an opening here. This seat is Likely Democratic — Democrats should win this Biden +10 district, but there is a chance that Republicans could make it competitive. 
In short, Democratic improvement with college-educated whites is substantially blunting the impact of a continued Latino shift to the GOP. In fact, Biden’s improvement on Obama’s 2012 10-point victory likely comes from a surge in white support that counters the Hispanic swing right; Biden appears to have won New Mexico whites by about a point, which would have been a major surprise a decade ago. Because of this, it is increasingly difficult for the GOP to consistently win statewide races without substantial ticket-splitting, unless and until they regularly begin winning a majority of the Latino vote. The state, overall, should thus remain in the Democratic column for the foreseeable future; however, when the right conditions materialize and a wave forms, nothing is safe, and so New Mexico should certainly be one of the Republican targets in 2022. It’s a reach, but there is a lane for them here.

This concludes our New Mexico roundup! Read the report here!

I’m a political analyst here at Split Ticket, where I handle the coverage of our Senate races. I graduated from Yale in 2021 with a degree in Statistics and Data Science. I’m interested in finance, education, and electoral data – and make plenty of models and maps in my free time.