After Barack Obama carried New Mexico by a 15-point margin in the 2008 presidential race, some people forgot it was a swing state. But the reality is that Al Gore won the state by only 300 votes in 2000, and George Bush carried it by 6,000 in 2004, so there is no guarantee it will go for Obama again this year. In fact, statewide polls of voter sentiment show a distinct tightening of the race in New Mexico since the year began. A survey by Public Policy Polling in February gave Obama a 16-point lead, but the same outfit found a smaller lead of 14 points in April, which fell dramatically to 7 points in June, and then shrank a little bit more to only 5 points in mid-July. So New Mexico seems to be trending toward the Republicans.
Against that backdrop, the prospect of across-the-board cuts to discretionary federal spending next January could have a significant impact on who gets New Mexico’s five electoral-college votes. That’s especially true of looming cuts to military spending, because the state’s economy is heavily dependent on activity at four sprawling defense facilities. Kirtland Air Force Base employs 23,000 workers, making it the largest employer in the state, and pumps nearly $8 billion into the local economy each year. Los Alamos National Laboratory, involved in nuclear-weapons work, employees 11,000 federal workers and contractor personnel, and indirectly sustains the employment of an additional 12,000 people. Sandia National Lab, colocated with Kirtland AFB near Albuquerque, has at least 8,000 direct employees in the state. And White Sands Missile Range reported a similar number of employees last year — 7,600, of which 3,500 worked for the government and the remainder for contractors.
Without getting into the intricacies of what each of the facilities does, collectively they account for over 10 percent of all the jobs in the state, and that percentage swells when indirect jobs created by their economic impact are included. So the fact that all four facilities are subject to cuts imposed by the sequestration provisions of last year’s Budget Control Act could have a significant impact on election results in the state. Although local job reductions potentially numbering in the thousands will not occur until after the November election, voters who might be affected will have plenty of warning since federal law requires the facilities and their contractors to issue notices of impending job losses before the election.
Likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is trying to capitalize on the fear generated by defense cuts by promising to restore any funding that the Pentagon loses if he is elected. While his ability to do that is by no means clear, the commitment to reverse defense cuts is likely to have great appeal in New Mexico given how dependent its economy is on military spending. Because the Budget Control Act was deliberately drafted in a way that would put pressure on the political system to compromise, the absence of congressional movement has had the effect of unsettling large numbers of voters. That discomfort could work to the disadvantage of the Democratic presidential candidate come election day in New Mexico.
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