Know Your Battleground States 6/9: Colorado

Colorado was until very recently a very reliable Republican state in Presidential elections. Even in 1996, the worst Republican Presidential year since Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole won Colorado despite the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot.

As with the other western battleground, Nevada, rapid population growth, particularly from Hispanics and West Coasters, has made the state competitive in a very short space of time. In particular, Colorado’s flourishing IT and electronics industies lured many young and well-educated Californians with the prospect of cheaper property, shorter commutes and beauiful scenery. Colorado, once part of New Spain, always had a significant Hispanic population (over 8% even in the 1940 census) which has been augmented by extraordinarily rapid immigration over the past 20 years. The Hispanic population of suburban Denver increased by over 50% between 2000 and 2010.

Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the Rockies

This is the land where South Park is set, and many locals have an appropriately sceptical attitude to both parties, with a definite tendency towards positions that produce large numbers of swing voters – socially liberal, pro-gun and economically moderate. The Centennial State has a particularly high number of voters registered as Independents. Significant liberal-left, socially conservative and economically libertarian blocs give both parties a firm base, but elections here are decided by the sceptical suburbanites in the middle.

Colorado is now a pivotal state in American Presidential elections. As befits that crucial role, Colorado played host to the most important moment of the 2012 Presidential campaign, the game changing first TV debate where Mitt Romney calmly tore apart an Obama/Axelrod playbook that had been working to perfection.

80% of Colorado’s population lives in the Front Range Urban Corridor, which follows both the eponymous chain of mountains and the I-25 Freeway for 180 miles from Fort Collins close to the Wyoming border, through Denver, to Pueblo down in the South. The Front Range is the first sudden eruption of the Rockies from the endless flatland, and its perfect combination of stunning scenery and excellent transportation links and are key to Colorado’s attraction for migrants.

Up in the north, Fort Collins, a university town and with a large element of both high-tech and old-school industry, is politically marginal with the academic element battling more conventional suburbia. The next major city along the freeway is Boulder, a very leftish university town that always produces big margins for Democrats of 2 or 3 to 1.

Chess players in Denver's 16th Street Mall

Metropolitan Denver is the key to any winning election in the Centennial State. Denver itself is a relatively small proportion of its metro area, casting 270k votes in 2008 to the 720k cast in the three bordering counties. Between them, these four counties cast over 40% of Colorado’s votes. Denver is racially diverse (31% Hispanic and 10% Black, the latter high by Western standards) and has a large population of well-educated, secular, singletons as well as a significant gay community. Needless to say, it is a Democratic stronghold, with the blue side winning round 70%

Denver’s sprawling, low-density, suburbs are where Colorado elections are really won – and lost – however. All of Colorado’s political and economic diversity is found among the endlessly sprawling cookie-cutter developments – NRA members and hippies, gay rights activists and conservative Evangelicals, marijuana dispensaries and megachurches, high-tech start ups and huge manufacturing plants. All of suburban Denver has a rapidly growing population, and especially a rapidly growing Hispanic population. Adams County has a definite Democratic lean, while Arapahoe and Jefferson Counties are swingier, won by Bush in 2004 but Obama in 2008. Working-class Jefferson, in particular, is seen as one of the most crucial battlegrounds in the nation.

Pike's Peak, near Colorado Springs

Further south, the Republican votes really start piling up in the new exurban towns of Douglas County and especially around Colorado Springs in El Paso County. Between them, Douglas and El Paso produced a lead for George Bush of 125k in 2004, cancelling out a hair-line deficit of 25k in the rest of the state. Colorado Springs is famous as an epicentre of social conservatism, nicknamed the “Evangelical Vatican”, headquarters to Focus on the Family, the evangelical missionary HCJB shortwave radio station, and countless other parachurch organisations.

The southern end the endless sprawl of Front Range suburbia is marked by Pueblo, a heavily Hispanic and blue-collar city which along with Denver and Boulder is the third of the three real Democratic bastions in the state.

Corn growing in Larimer County

Outside the urban sprawl, the political picture remains complex. The eastern third of the state is High Plains country where corn and ranching are rule the roost. This area resembles, geographically and politically, the very conservative western regions of Kansas and Nebraska which it borders. Although sparsely populated, the Republican share of the vote here is exceptionally high, with even John McCain managing 80% in a few counties.

Southern Colorado, another sparsely populated agricultural area, votes Democratic, with demographics being the driver – once part of New Spain, a longstanding Spanish American population in the area has not only begun to lean more Demoratic in recent years, but the area has an exploding population of immigrants from Mexico and Central America working at low end agricultural jobs.

Gore Creek Drive in Vail

The western part of the state is known as the Western Slope, as it consists of the area west of the Continental Divide in the High Rockies, beyond which rivers flow into the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. This area is politically mixed, although as a generalisation the far west is heavily Republican, while the Intermountain region, in the state’s midwest, tends to be more mixed but definitely Democratic-leaning. Again, as a loose generalisation, the far west depends as much on agriculture, mining and gas as it does on tourism, whereas in the Intermountain region, tourism dominates the economy.

The largest city in western Colorado, Grand Junction, which unlike most gas industry centres has really struggled in recent years, sees big margins for Republican candidates and Romney may do even better than the historic trend. In the Intermountain region, upscale resorts like Aspen and Vail have a surfeit both of wealthy coastal liberals and struggling service staff, both demographics that Democrats do well among.

Focus on the Family Visitors' Centre, Colorado Springs

Colorado is peppered with military facilities, especially Air Force facilities including the headquarters of NORAD, and the uniformed and ex-uniformed vote is another big factor in Colorado politics.

Colorado has become a must-win state for both candidates. If Romney loses Ohio, and it seems more and more challenging for him, then he must win Colorado to stay in the race. For Obama, Colorado is a the key western flank of the much vaunted firewall, and its a part of the firewall now burned almost through to the last. RealClearPolitics.com currently has Obama in front, but only by a whisker of 1%. For much October, Romney was narrowly in the lead, but Obama seems to have rebounded in the past 10 days. This is a state that will go to the wire, and may yet prove as game changing on election night as it did on debate night.

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  • Thank you, Gerry Lynch, for a very fine overview.

    I’m delighted you brought Colorado into this tour d’horizon, because it is one of the more interesting States, politically. Well, OK: make that ‘demographically’.

    Fifteen of the twenty-one counties (and the more populous ones) are gaining population at a rate of 1 — 3% a year. Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins (a personal favourite, like many other ‘crusties’) and other ‘cities’ are not far off exploding with in-comers. That’s what’s making the difference.

    If not this cycle, in the middle-term this is a blue State.

  • Kevsterino

    My brother lives in Broomfield, about halfway between Denver and Boulder. He is the most right-wing man I know, but I love him like a brother. The last we spoke about politics was about 6 months ago. He is about fed up with the changing political landscape of his adopted state.

    I think that is a good thing, but don’t tell my brother ;o)

  • I’d like Kevsterino @ 9:25 pm questioning his brother why anyone would want to live about halfway between Denver and Boulder.

    Why not go the whole way? Sigh of reminiscence — the West End Tavern; Conor O’Neill’s, the Twisted Pine …

    I reckon on Boulder being one of the more civilised spots in the 50 States. OK: along with places like Bend OR, the northernmost California coast, and about three dozen other spots.

    In a way, Kevsterino @ 9:25 pm is suggesting the way things are changing.Thank goodness, and thank decent people.

    Nothing is immutable.

  • If not this cycle, in the middle-term this is a blue State.

    One of the impressive things about the American system is its tendency to find balance. Cultural and demographic change helped the Republicans gain West Virginia and Arkansas, but lost them Nevada and New Mexico. Colorado and Missouri swap columns in the very near future. And Arizona replaces Tennessee as a politically explosive swing state with a socially conservative, nativist, element and a large minority population.

  • Kevsterino

    Gerry, we migrate like mad. At one time, I had siblings in Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Texas. Their children are now in 3 additional states.

    Missouri is a Red state, to my chagrin. St. Louis and Kansas City are Democratic enclaves, but the rest is red as a rooster crown. I wouldn’t expect that to change any time soon, as the more progressive folks seem more inclined to move out to Bluer horizons.

  • Dewi

    great stuff Gerry – think Florida might be swinging to the good guys..

  • Yes Gerry a very accurate analysis of this crucial state.If Obama fails to take Ohio he must win Colorado.
    Realclearpoilitics shows him to have a 1% lead but the recent early voting with almost two thirds having voted shows the Republicans with a slight lead 37/35 while at same stage in 2008 Democrats had a small lead.
    Rasmussen(which tends towards Republicans) gives Romney a 3% lead but the majority of polls show Obama to have a small lead,
    I believe the polls have underestimated the growing Hispanic community in Colorado and that Obama will win the state.However the polls may be wrong and as i previously pointed out the problems facing pollsters in terms of weighting ,assumptions as to turnout enthusiasm, demographic make up and particularly the response from Spanish speaking voters makes iColorado very difficult to predict.While I have serious problems with Rasmussens previous record and assumptions I would not dismiss them out of hand.
    Next to Ohio Colorado is probably the most important state and on the polls available I believe Obama will take it and the Presidency
    .However I retain a niggling fear that the polls most based on a response rate of less than 10% have got it wrong and Rasmussen may be right.

  • Don’t forget Virginia, Brian, another crucial state.

  • Point taken Gerry .Virginia is clearly crucial for Romney but I think it would be easier for Obama to win Colorado as I feelthe polls may underestimate the Latino vote in that state.
    In addition RCP shows Obama with a slight lead in Colorado+0.6 but marginally behind-0.3 in Virginia. But winning either plus Ohio would seal an Obama victory

  • Kevsterino

    @Malcolm, in answer to why Broomfield, my dear brother loves the mountains, but can’t stand those ‘liberals’ in Boulder. College towns, like Boulder, are usually liberal in the US.

    I’m surprised you didn’t include the amphitheater at Red Rocks in your Boulder highlights. I saw the Moody Blues there in 84 or 85. Terrific venue.

    all the best

  • Greenflag

    I was in Boulder at the campus for an international academic ‘competition’ circa 1999/2000 ( A family member was particpating ) . I remember dedicated ‘bicycle’ lanes and thinking – Could this be Holland ? But then a look around at the mountains surrounding Boulder persuaded me that it was’nt.

    I recall driving into the mountains outside Boulder and having to stop and turn back at 12,000 ft . The one who must be obeyed had had a recent operation and was feeling faint at the drop in oxygen at that height . I think I could have continued to 14,000 ft which would be 4 times the height of Carrantuohill in Co Kerry or Ben Nevis in Scotland . And we call them the Wickla mountains

    It’s the ‘highest ‘ I’ve ever been- that is outside a Boeing 747 ,

    Great scenery and great people from my recollections.

    Obama by whisker I ‘d call due mainly to demographic change and a slightly higher Hispanic (non Cuban ) vote.

  • Kevsterino

    @Greenflag, from my bro’s backyard, on a clear day (and at that altitude they have some spectacularly clear days) you can see Pike’s Peak, about 100 miles to the south. Colorado is a beautiful state. I lived there myself about 3 years back in the eighties. Boulder reminds me of northern California, with all the latte shops and bike paths to prove it ;o)

    I think Obama will take Colorado, based on the excuses I hear my dear brother making. Cheers

  • Kevsterino @ 4:25 pm and Greenflag @ 5:16 pm:

    Thanks, chaps. Happy memories.

    One of the few who’ve sussed who is behind this pseudonym was a mate from primary and grammar school. One of the few common factors in our subsequent lives was Boulder — he’d done a research turn at the Atmospheric Research Center. I was far less high-powered: my first trip was because a daughter had worked a summer in Estes Park — first at the Stanley Hotel (think The Shining) and then struck out for more profit-making joints. She was right — a marvellous locality. Just get out before they close the roads (third week in October, if my memory holds).

    As for those heights, I’ve hiked the odd mountain there. First time round I tried to piggyback the youngest (now the Pert Young Piece) up a not-so-gentle slope. Thought I was having a coronary, until the marker told me I was higher than “the famous Mount Hood”. Somewhere there I, too, was at my greatest terrestrial altitude (Pert Young Piece had to be it: later she camped at 19,000 feet in the Himalayas). Shucks.

    As for Moody Blues, the guy who sold me two tee-shirts in Estes Park (circa 1994) knew more about the history of British Rock than Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees.

    Does anyone want an arty-farty hammock, bought in Boulder, never used in the UK climate (my other tree died on me)?

    I see the Montana judge (on the petition of Frontline and ProPublica) has forced the disclosure of Western Tradition Partnership’s “dark money”, supporting conservative candidates in Montana and CO. So we know the source of $1.1 million of the vast sums swilling around. Surely to goodness the Supreme Court will have to revisit Citizens United, if not to limit SuperPacs, at least to force disclosure on them.

    As of now, Obama up 1.8% in CO, and — astoundingly — 4.8% in NV and a full 8% in NM (which is better than the 6% lead in Oregon). That would be 20 swing state electoral votes (+7 for Oregon, which I’d never thought was in play).

    Early to kip tonight: tomorrow could be a long day’s journey into night.

  • Greenflag

    @ kevin

    ‘on a clear day you can see Pike’s Peak, about 100 miles to the south.’

    On a clear day from the top of Lugnaquilla (from Irish: Log na Coille, meaning “hollow of the wood”) is a 925-metre (3,035 ft) mountain, you can see across the Irish Sea to the hills of the Llyn Peninsula and mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, .

    I can claim to have seen Snowdonia (Wales ) from Co Wicklow ( Leinster , Ireland ) , on a clear day but that was more than 25 years ago . Clear days are not too common in the Wicklow hills – or in Wales either 😉

    Mist covered mountains indeed -These are Scottish hills but very similar to what you might experience on top of Lugnaquilla .

  • Greenflag

    Malcolm Redfellow 5 November 2012 at 6:04 pm

    ‘ Surely to goodness the Supreme Court will have to revisit Citizens United, if not to limit SuperPacs, at least to force disclosure on them.’

    One would hope so but it will probably have to wait until a re-elected Pres Obama (presumably) can appoint a new supreme court judge or two pending the retirement of present bench . The current Supreme Court Justices are made up of 6 Catholics and 3 Jews so hopefully Pres Obama can find a couple of places for some progressive Protestants etc.