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Elections 2012: Three Times the Impact From Indian Country

Election 2012 has hours to go. And I can think of three reasons why Indian country could be the significant swing vote.

Election 2012 has hours to go. And I can think of three reasons why Indian country could be the significant swing vote.

First: In a close election – one so close that a recount could end up being the deciding factor – there are 11 states where Native American voters will be an important constituency.

Second: Native voters in Montana and Arizona could be the difference in what the next U.S. Senate looks like.

And, third, the Native Vote project will increase participation.

Now let’s dig into the details. Real Clear Politics average of polls lists 11 states as tossups worth 146 Electoral College votes. Those states are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indian country has a presence in every one of those states, primarily in urban Indian communities, but unfortunately that’s data that’s nearly impossible to analyze. However the reservation communities are distinct, and we can look at past results and project what that might mean going forward.

Wisconsin, as I have written before, is at the top of that list, the one state most likely to be tipped by the Native American vote. In Real Clear Politics average of polls taken in the state, Obama leads by 50.4 percent to 46.2 percent. This is significant because it puts Obama over 50 percent which means that undecided voters can’t suddenly shift the balance.

One of the most recent polls, for example, comes from Public Policy Polling (or PPP). That shows a 3 percent lead for Obama, just about twice the margin of Native American voters in the state.

“Barack Obama’s not going to win these states by as much as he did in 2008 but he still looks like a pretty clear favorite to take both of them,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling.

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North Carolina is pretty much the flip side of Wisconsin. Except, that is, for one important difference: Romney has yet to hit 50 percent. The Real Clear Politics average spots him at 49.2 percent. So a high turnout from Latino and Native American voters could allow an Obama surprise.

How about the Senate? There are three states to watch: Montana, North Dakota and Arizona. All three of these states are Republican in nature. The Democrats shouldn’t even be competitive (although Arizona is changing because of demographics).

Montana Sen. Jon Tester has grabbed the lead in 7 of 8 recent polls, including the most recent PPP poll that shows him ahead by two points.

“We’ve released four Montana Senate polls since Labor Day and Tester has led by 2 points in every one of them,” PPP said. “Voters are closely split on Tester with 47 percent of voters approving of him to 46 percent who disapprove, but that makes him far more popular than Rehberg who only has a 37 percent approval with 54 percent of voters unhappy with his performance. The only reason this race is even close is the GOP nature of the state. Tester's ahead 50/37 with independents.”

The Native vote in Montana is clearly key to any Democrat winning there. So much so that Tester and other Democratic candidates toured reservations last week in order to build support.

It’s a similar story in North Dakota where Democratic candidate Heidi Heitkamp has a platform that includes Indian country priorities.

The third thing to watch this cycle is the Native Vote project. It’s already clear that registration is up (unfortunately there’s no data yet, but lots of anecdotal stories about registration increases in native communities large and small). The one story that blew me away: Fort Belknap, Montana, registering 92 percent of its citizens. Amazing. And even more spectacular: So much of the effort at Fort Belknap is driven by young people, often students in high school or at the Aaniiih Nakoda College. There is a lot of evidence that when young people vote, it becomes a pattern, not just a one-time event.

So here we are: A day to go and the 2012 election might soon be in the books. Let’s hope.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: