Western states are becoming more urban and diverse, with an influx of Hispanic, Asian and young voters who tend to vote against Republican candidates, according to political strategists who spoke Monday at a Democratic conference.
"The trend is worrisome if you are a Republican," UNLV sociology professor Robert Lang said during the event.
The battle to win the West is being planned in Las Vegas this week, with Republican and Democratic political consultants holding dueling strategy meetings.
Republican presidential candidates will gather for a Western state debate in Las Vegas tonight , an event that is intended to open the Western Republican Leadership Conference. The four-day event will include appearances by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
Democrats held a lower-profile gathering Sunday and Monday, with some 400 party leaders from across the West at the Project New West conference in downtown Las Vegas.
Metropolitan areas are becoming the dominant residential centers in the once rural West, with Phoenix and Las Vegas making up 65 percent and 72 percent of the Arizona and Nevada populations, respectively, said Lang, co-director of the Brookings Mountain West think tank.
That could hamper the GOP because city dwellers tend to be more diverse and liberal than rural counterparts, a trend that favors Democrats, Lang said.
Census data show Nevada was the fastest-growing state in the nation during the past decade, followed by Arizona and Utah.
Booming Hispanic neighborhoods are transforming Western states, but some candidates don't understand how to reach those voters, said Maria Echaveste, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Running campaign ads on Spanish-language TV can seem inclusive, but the majority of Hispanics speak English, not Spanish, Echaveste said.
Hispanics accounted for nearly 50 percent or more of the population gains among children under 18 in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming from 2000 to 2010, according to census data. In Arizona, Hispanics accounted for roughly half of the state's overall population increase since 2000.
The explosion of Hispanic voters, who tend to lean Democratic, doesn't mean the GOP cannot win elections in the West.
Unaffiliated voters make up more than a third of the electorate in Arizona and Colorado and 19 percent in New Mexico, according to data compiled by those states. Those independent voters ensure that the West will remain a competitive battleground, said Jill Hanauer, president of Project New West, a Denver-based research group organizing western Democrats.
"Neither party can take this region for granted," Hanauer said. "People make up their mind independently, not just based on party labels. It's about who is getting things done now."