Colorado’s shift from red state to purple state has made it key to both the Obama and Romney campaigns. But how long will we continue to play presidential kingmaker?
I’m not sure how this happened, but the fate of the nation rests in our hands. I hope you’re enjoying it. I know I am. Personally, I love being the new Florida, especially without the bother of outsize bugs, crushing humidity, and pregnant chads.
That’s right: Along with perennial swing states Florida and Ohio, Colorado has ended up as one of a handful of states that is undecided, so far, in this year’s presidential sweepstakes. Indeed, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention last month, President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, singled out the Centennial State as a linchpin in the president’s re-election strategy. “We win Colorado,” Messina said, “it is almost impossible for Mitt Romney to win the presidency.” That means there may be no more important voter in the nation than you. Yes, you. Take a bow, dude. Presidentially speaking, you’re the man. Or the woman. Unless we’re talking about your bozo neighbor, the one who confuses Paul Ryan with Ryan Seacrest, who really is the man.
Don’t let the magnitude of it all go to your head, though. The concept of the swing state—in which roughly 10 competitive states stand in for the entire nation—is a function of the anachronistic Electoral College, from which our nation can’t seem to ever graduate. The College was created by the Founding Fathers, who didn’t exactly trust the whole one-man, one-vote proposition (and, as you originalists may recall, didn’t allow women or blacks to vote at all). Back then, the deciders were white male electors with horses and muskets—not necessarily the perfect system for the 21st-century iPad generation.
So, from the start, presidential elections have been determined by state-by-state results instead of a national popular vote—and therefore, once again this year, the whole thing will come down to the states that can’t seem to make up their minds. Ambivalence is the coin of the realm. Nearly everyone in the red-blue world has picked a team, but the few states who opt for purple—they’re either color-blind or just not paying attention—get all the love, if that’s what you call the presidential motorcade traffic and the apocalyptic ad campaigns, which are the ugliest since LBJ introduced the nuclear daisy to the conversation.
Here’s the bad news: The heady days are nearly over for Colorado. It won’t happen this year, and maybe not even by 2016, but the end of our swing-state run is near. Colorado is too young, too Hispanic, and too urban to stay purple. Unless there’s an entirely unexpected political cataclysm, the same forces that turned Colorado from red to purple just a few years ago will almost surely change it to a blue state in the near future.
At press time Obama and Romney were statistically tied in Colorado polls, which should be encouraging to the Romney camp. But if you drill down a little into the numbers, it becomes clear that the GOP should be scared.
America is changing. Although the white working class, once at the center of the Democratic union vote, has gone strongly Republican, the younger generation that voted overwhelmingly Democratic in 2008 is less white and less hung up about race, creed, sexual orientation, and the rest. In one August Public Policy Polling survey, Romney led 51–44 among Coloradans over the age of 45; but among those 45 and under, Obama led 56–33.
And take this look into the future: In that same PPP poll, Hispanics favored Obama by a substantial, but hardly surprising, 66–28 margin. (According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Colorado’s Hispanic population grew 41 percent between 2000 and 2010.)
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise to any of us. The shifting landscape in Colorado was made clear in 2010 when Michael Bennet, the accidental senator—who won only a third of working-class whites in Colorado—somehow won his race against Ken Buck. David Axelrod, a key Obama adviser, has looked to the Bennet race for how the president might win here in 2012, and Bennet and his staff have been consulting with the Obama campaign.
The Democratic coalition, built of women, minorities, and college-educated professionals, isn’t entirely new. Bennet won because he had the backing of those voters, but he also had Buck, who managed to offend gays, women, and people of any gender who wear high heels. (If you think Buck had a gender-gap issue, look at Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, a gender-chasm gift to Democrats; the Dems are so focused on women’s issues this year that Sandra Fluke—whom Rush Limbaugh called a “slut” and a “prostitute”—spoke at the DNC in Charlotte and flew to Colorado to introduce Obama as if to show that the Dems are indeed the party of birth control.)
That Buck had been nominated wasn’t a fluke. In the same year, Colorado Republicans nominated Dan Maes—who warned of the dangers of U.N.-backed bike programs, like Denver’s B-cycle—to run for governor and ended up vainly voting for Tom Tancredo, who once advocated for bombing Mecca. As I wrote at the time, Gov. John Hickenlooper turned out to be the luckiest man since Ringo.
As late as 2004, Colorado was a solidly red state, and people were predicting it might stay that way forever. Four years later, Colorado had voted for Obama; a Democratic governor; two Democratic senators; a majority Democratic congressional delegation; and Dem control of both houses of the state Legislature.
What happened has been well documented. The Democratic billionaires, such as Pat Stryker and Tim Gill, played small ball and picked legislative races to pour money into. The state, which grew by a third in the 1990s, became more urban and more Californian. The California Republicans who moved here weren’t Colorado Republicans, and the new middle-class Jefferson County dwellers weren’t sure what to make of, say, politicians comparing gay marriage to marrying your horse.
The transition from red to purple to blue, however, is not yet complete, and just like the previous presidential election, we’re still the center of attention. During the Obama-McCain race four years ago, almost 90 percent of all campaign funds was spent in just 15 swing states. A lot more money will be spent this year in the post–Citizens United world of super PACs and secret super super PACs. And that means we’ll continue to be bombarded with dangerous doses of political negativity each day on TV, radio, Facebook, and Twitter. Campaign spending, it appears, will grow bigger and more focused and evermore narrowly cast. Next time, the candidates will have your cell phone on speed dial, and if you’re not careful, you may find Sheldon Adelson inviting you to lunch.
Then, one day in November, it will be over and Obama will be re-elected, or Romney will be strapping family pets on top of Air Force One, and the country will strive mightily to return to a few days of normalcy before the whole campaign season starts anew.
And here in Colorado? Soon enough, we’ll slowly begin to gear up too. But in fewer than 10 years, the excitement may well all be gone—poof—and electorally speaking, we’ll be back to being Kansas with mountains, although this time, there’s a good chance we’ll be voting blue. In the meantime, we’ll continue living large. Enjoy it while you can.
Mike Littwin has been on the staffs of the Rocky Mountain News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Baltimore Sun. Most recently, he was a columnist for the Denver Post. Email him at [email protected].