CENTENNIAL, Colo.--The scene outside Willow Creek Elementary School early on the Fourth of July offered a panorama of timeless suburban images. Children perched impatiently on bicycles decorated with American flags; toddlers fidgeting in Radio Flyer wagons wrapped in red, white, and blue bunting; young parents sipping coffee and chatting in the warm sunshine. When a fire truck sounded its siren to launch the neighborhood Independence Day parade, a cheer erupted from the crowd; and the kids, and bikes, and dogs straining on their leashes all surged forward in an exuberant tangle.
None of this would have looked out of place in a scrapbook about life in the pleasant Willow Creek subdivision at any point since it was developed three decades ago--or, for that matter, in any portrait of suburbia since Beaver Cleaver. And yet, even though Willow Creek can seem happily suspended in time, it is evolving politically. And so are other communities like it in sprawling Arapahoe County south and east of Denver.
Long a Republican stronghold, Arapahoe has become an increasingly competitive battleground. In a parallel advance, Democrats have gained ground in neighboring Jefferson County, a suburban behemoth southwest of Denver once dominated by the GOP. And Democrats have also grown stronger in Larimer County, centered on Fort Collins, north of Denver.
These suburban breakthroughs are at the heart of the Democratic resurgence that since 2004 has given the party control of the state Legislature, the governorship, and a majority of the state's seats in Congress. Among states that President Bush carried in 2004, Colorado ranks as one of the top targets for Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. And Colorado is the main front in Obama's drive to expand Democratic inroads in the Mountain West.
Across the state, which next month will host the Democratic National Convention, Democrats feel the wind at their backs. Steve Justino, a lawyer from Willow Creek, crystallized that optimism as he watched the July Fourth parade. "When I first moved here, you would have thought I was the only Democrat on the planet," he said. "But for a Democrat, it's getting bluer all the time."
Still, only two Democratic presidential candidates have carried Colorado since 1952--Lyndon Johnson during his 1964 landslide, and Bill Clinton in 1992, when Ross Perot's third-party candidacy allowed Clinton to win with just 40 percent of the vote. Republicans retain formidable assets here, starting with a substantial (though shrinking) lead over Democrats in party registration and a solid base among culturally conservative suburban and rural voters.
Presumptive GOP nominee John McCain, a Westerner with a reputation for sometimes bucking his party, may be a stronger competitor than Bush was for Colorado's independents, who have edged past Republicans as the largest group on the state's voter-registration rolls, according to figures released this month. "We are in a very competitive situation, but we have some things that are working in our favor," says Dick Wadhams, the state's Republican Party chair.
In Colorado, Obama is riding an undeniable Democratic wave, but whether it will crest high enough to overcome the GOP's traditional advantages is unclear. "Colorado could be one of those 51-49 states, one way or the other," says veteran Democratic consultant Mike Stratton, who is advising the party's U.S. Senate nominee, Rep. Mark Udall. "Unless there is some big national landslide [for] Obama, I think we're going to be biting our fingernails and pulling every last person out of the doors on Election Day." That may be especially true in Denver suburbs such as Arapahoe and Jefferson, which together could make the difference in a state likely to be among those that pick the next president.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Colorado balanced closely between the two parties. Although Republicans carried the state in all six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988, Democrats over that era elected a series of brainy and iconoclastic governors (Richard Lamm and Roy Romer) and senators (Gary Hart and Tim Wirth) who challenged party traditions and helped define the "neoliberal" synthesis of economic moderation and cultural liberalism.
But through the 1990s, an influx of culturally conservative voters--centered in Colorado Springs and in the explosively growing Douglas County, an exurb south of Arapahoe and Jefferson--shifted the state to the right. By 2002, Republicans held the governorship, both chambers in the state Legislature, both U.S. Senate seats, and five of the state's seven U.S. House seats.
Since then, Democrats have staged a remarkably rapid and widespread recovery. In 2004, Democrats recaptured majorities in both the state Senate and the state House, flipped a U.S. House seat, and elected Ken Salazar to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell. In 2006, the party enlarged its majorities in both chambers of the Legislature; won a majority of the congressional delegation by capturing an open Republican House seat in the Denver suburbs; and elected former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter governor by a landslide. This year, Democrats could take the second U.S. Senate seat. Polls show Udall leading former Rep. Bob Schaffer for the seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard.
In these state and congressional elections, Democrats have benefited from friction between social and economic conservatives--as well as between hard-core anti-tax activists and more business-oriented Republicans who have supported increased public spending for roads and schools. But Democrats have also prospered by nominating statewide candidates, such as Salazar and Ritter, who are seen as moderate, especially on cultural issues.
Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver-based pollster, notes that one reason the state has been so difficult for Democratic presidential nominees is that few of them have been able to hold that centrist cultural ground. George W. Bush, in particular, succeeded at portraying both of his general election opponents--Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004--as liberal Washington elitists, a toxic image in Colorado. Obama and Udall are more conventionally liberal than Salazar and Ritter, and Ciruli says that their prospects in November may hinge on whether Republicans succeed in branding them as elitist too.
"The Republican information network is extremely good: All of our metro radio stations and all around the state have all the conservative talk-show hosts, and there is a strong religious network too," he says. "If this campaign gets polarized, and Obama [and Udall] are portrayed as basically liberal Northeasterners, Washingtonians, elitists, all the things that identified Kerry ... that would be the problem for them."
The contrast between Salazar's success and Kerry's failure on Election Day here in 2004 underscores the challenge facing Obama. On the day that Bush beat Kerry in the state by 99,523 votes, Salazar beat Republican Pete Coors by almost exactly the same margin, 100,520 votes. The difference between Kerry's and Salazar's performances maps the boundary between victory and defeat for a Democrat in Colorado.
Salazar did many things better than his party's presidential nominee. He squeezed slightly larger margins of victory from the bedrock Democratic counties of Denver and Boulder, for example, and he narrowly won in the Fort Collins area, where Kerry narrowly lost.
But the most important divergence came in two very different parts of the state, according to a comparison of the election results conducted for National Journal by Clark Bensen of Polidata, a political data analysis firm. The first was in the state's rural counties: Salazar lost most of them, but he held down the GOP's winning margins much more effectively there than Kerry did. According to the Polidata analysis, Salazar finished at least 10 percentage points higher than Kerry in 18 small rural counties, most of them along the state's eastern border or along the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains, and at least 5 percentage points higher in most of the other rural counties. (See map, page 77.)
Salazar also did significantly better than Kerry in Denver's suburbs, particularly Jefferson and Arapahoe counties. Bush beat Kerry there by a combined 23,000 votes; Salazar carried the two counties by nearly 25,000.
Republicans are confident that Obama, with his urbane manner and liberal views on most social issues, won't be able to match the folksy Salazar's showing in rural Colorado. Wadhams, who is also campaign manager for GOP Senate nominee Schaffer, says that Obama will be hurt by his controversial remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser this spring. "I guarantee you, rural voters in Colorado will be reminded about how they are 'bitter' and 'cling' to guns and religion," Wadhams said.
For Obama, the realistic goal in rural Colorado may not be to match Salazar's performance but simply to exceed Kerry's anemic one. If he is to win the state, "Obama can't get killed in rural Colorado," Stratton says. Obama could compensate for weak showings in rural counties by generating even larger margins than Salazar or Kerry did in such core Democratic communities as Boulder and Denver. But the likelihood that Obama will face resistance in rural places means that he will have to build on recent Democratic gains in the Denver suburbs.
The counties surrounding the state capital seem to be undergoing the same evolution that realigned comfortable, socially moderate white-collar suburbs along the East and West coasts (such as Santa Clara, Calif.) and the upper Midwest (such as Oakland County, Mich.) toward the Democrats under Bill Clinton during the 1990s.
No Democratic presidential nominee since Lyndon Johnson has carried Jefferson or Arapahoe. But the 47 percent of the vote that Kerry won in Jefferson, and his 48 percent in Arapahoe were new highs for a post-Johnson Democratic nominee, according to Polidata figures. And in 2006, Ritter, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, pushed beyond Salazar's 2004 breakthrough in the two counties to sweep them by a combined 68,000 votes.
Democrats in the two counties are benefiting from a combination of demographic and attitudinal changes. A growing Hispanic population, especially in the suburbs closest to Denver, is boosting the Democrats. But the party is also growing more attractive to middle-income families, especially those headed by professionals with advanced degrees. Many of those Democratic-leaning professionals register as unaffiliated voters.
David Schmitt, who works for a firm that trains physicians, says he has seen the change among those voters in Centennial, which long leaned to the GOP. "Over the last eight years, there has been a shift of people more in the middle, who might have supported Bush in the past but are open to Obama now," Schmitt said as the July Fourth parade assembled.
Republicans still hold a voter-registration lead over Democrats in Arapahoe. And even though few of the GOP partisans at the Willow Creek parade displayed much enthusiasm for McCain, many recoiled at the mention of Obama. "No corporation in the world would hire someone with that lack of leadership experience," said Shawn Popylisen, a cardiac technician from Willow Creek. Similar views, delivered even more fiercely, were common in interviews with blue-collar voters in working-class parts of the county such as Littleton.
For all of the Democrats' momentum in Colorado, the basic math of the state hasn't yet tipped toward them. Although Hispanics vote heavily Democratic, exit polls found that Hispanics cast just 8 percent of the Colorado vote in 2004, a lower percentage than in any Southwestern state. And although Democrats have halved the GOP's registration edge from nearly 177,000 in November 2004 to just under 88,000 as of June, Democrats must still attract a substantial majority of independents to win.
Both Arapahoe and Jefferson are booming with those unaffiliated voters. To carry Colorado, Obama almost certainly will need to win those counties' combined vote--something no Democratic presidential nominee has done in 44 years.
In Centennial, Independence Day showcased how much has remained constant. Election Day will measure how much has changed.
This is the fifth in a series of articles taking a close look at swing states likely to determine the outcome of this year's presidential election. Next week: New Mexico.
This article appears in the July 19, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.