The Republican ticket's barnstorm of Colorado this week brings Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to the rare swing state that has kept a red hue on an electoral map where many battlegrounds are turning blue.
Romney, who appeared in Colorado on Sunday and will do so again on Monday, has run even or ahead of President Obama in the Centennial State throughout the summer, despite the Democrat’s 8-point win there last time. (Ryan is scheduled to appear there on Wednesday.) Obama crept into the lead in some polls released last week, although a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times survey reported that the battle stood at a dead heat.
Romney will have to resist Obama’s ongoing post-convention bounce to win the state, but if he can, even Democrats acknowledge it represents a legitimate opportunity for Romney to claim victory. Obama, who visited the state early and often during his first term, will have to fight to reclaim Colorado’s prized nine electoral votes.
“If you look at the battleground states, Colorado does jump out at you in terms of the tightness of the polls,” said Mark Longabaugh, a veteran Democratic strategist who has done extensive work in the state.
Colorado’s competitiveness might surprise because of its location in the Southwest, the Hispanic-heavy region that has largely moved into the Democratic camp. Obama’s drop-off in Wisconsin, which he won by 14 points in 2008, for example, makes more sense in a state where Republicans have made significant inroads since the president’s election. The GOP won both a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate battle in 2010.
Colorado, meanwhile, was one of the few bright spots Democrats could count on in the midterm elections, when Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet knocked off Republican Ken Buck. If Republicans couldn’t win there during a historically favorable political wave, how could they pry it from the grip of an incumbent president two years later?
Part of the answer lies in the state’s demographic makeup, which is more GOP-friendly than other southwest states. Minorities constituted just 19 percent of the vote there in 2008, according to exit polls, making it less like neighbors Nevada and New Mexico. In the former, they made up 31 percent of the vote; in the latter, the figure was 50 percent.
Colorado also has some urban areas that are extremely conservative. The best-known is Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Air Force Academy and headquarters of the socially conservative group Focus on the Family and other like-minded organizations.
Obama and Democrats have succeeded in the state because nearly half of its population consists of college-educated white voters, who are far more favorable to the party than their blue-collar counterparts. But those voters, unlike Hispanics and African-Americans who have largely stuck with Obama, have softened in their support of the president for much of this year.
And unlike in Ohio, where the president can point to the auto-company bailout, there’s less evidence in Colorado the president has helped turn around the economy. The state’s unemployment rate stood in August was 8.2 percent, a tick higher than the 8.1 percent national average.
“Obama’s policies were clearly key in Ohio,” said Longabaugh. “The state looks like it’s turned the corner on manufacturing.”
The problem, he said, was the president can’t point to a similar success story in Colorado.
“As someone who has worked in Colorado the last few cycles, the state seems a little more sour on the economy,” he said.
Democrats in the state also suggest Obama’s campaign hasn’t quite matched the successful strategy that Bennet deployed two years earlier. He aggressively attacked his GOP foe on social issues such as abortion rights, a message with particular resonance in the socially moderate and populous Denver suburbs. But Obama has mostly strayed from that playbook, according to Rick Ridder, a Denver-based Democratic consultant.
“In terms of social issues, it hasn’t been quite so acute as it was in 2010,” he said. “You may see more of the social stuff later, but it hasn’t been so apparent so far.”
Still, Romney might yet have a hill to climb to win Colorado, whose electoral votes might be a crucial stop-gap if he fails to win states such as Ohio or Wisconsin. An NBC/News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of likely voters, which showed Obama up 5 points overall, found him at 44 percent among male white-college graduates and 56 percent among white female college graduates. That’s similar to the coalition Bennet was able to assemble in 2010, when he won 44 among white college-graduate men 59 percent of white women with a college degree.
The demographics might be more favorable for Romney in Colorado. But facing a rising national tide against him, Colorado would still be a heavy lift for the GOP nominee.