Terms like “swing state,” or a purple coloration on an electoral map, may create the false impression of a place filled with moderates who collectively shift from one election to the next. That’s not what such states actually look like on the ground. Rather, they are a collection of dense blue archipelagos—typically cities and college towns—surrounded by geographically vast swaths of less densely populated rural and suburban conservatism. The actual swing areas are typically limited to a few inner-ring suburbs. Even in those neighborhoods, victory might be determined by simply turning out more of your supporters rather than winning over converts.
Colorado, one of the highest-priority swing states for both the Romney and Obama campaigns, is typical of this pattern. So, while both the Romney and Obama campaigns say their focus is as much on persuasion as mobilization, on the ground in Colorado they seem entirely focused on the latter.
The Democratic strongholds in Colorado are Denver and Boulder, which together accounted for most of Obama’s 215,000-vote margin of victory in 2008. These are the sorts of unabashedly liberal bastions where you see Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood soliciting donations on the street. Boulder, home of Colorado University, especially embodies the stereotype of a hippie college town. Visit the main drag and you will pass white kids with dreadlocks and a sandwich shop called Cheba Hut that plays Bob Marley and boasts the motto, “Friends don’t let friends eat shwag.”
In 2008, despite Obama’s nine-point victory in Colorado, McCain cleaned up in the sparsely populated eastern and western corners of the state. The two most populous Republican counties are Douglas, in the prosperous far suburbs of Denver and El Paso, around Colorado Springs. (The Colorado Springs area is home to a large evangelical community, due to the presence of socially conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family, and military bases.) “Our overarching strategy is just to get out the Republican vote,” says Mike Roy, the executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party. “In El Paso County, we have a wide margin of Republicans. If we mobilize that base, no matter what the Democrats do we’d be able to win big enough in the county [for Romney to carry the state]. Our focus isn’t on conversion.” To that end they are canvassing and calling as many registered Republicans as they can with a simple message: vote.
Colorado is a crucial swing state whose winner will almost certainly be the next president. The Romney campaign held three rallies in the run-up to the first presidential debate in Denver, and the Obama campaign held one the day after, his eleventh appearance in Colorado this year. Only a week later, Michelle Obama returned to hold two more rallies, and Vice President Joe Biden will do the same on Wednesday. Colorado’s population is concentrated heavily along the Interstate 25 corridor, which has Denver in the middle, with Boulder and Fort Collins to the north and Colorado Springs to the south. Despite his greater popularity in the rural areas, even Romney has to go where the votes are: his fourteen Colorado field offices are bunched like discs along I-25’s spine.
One conundrum for campaigns is that even as the electorate becomes more reliably partisan in its voting behavior, it becomes less partisan in its registration. Unaffiliated voters are the plurality in Colorado, and they are its fastest-growing electoral segment. So even though Colorado has become increasingly Democratic in its electoral results, Republicans retain a slight registration advantage. Perversely, this has led both parties to become convinced that Colorado is one of their most congenial swing states. “Colorado of all the top tier states has always been the easiest for Romney to win. White collar + Western, ” tweeted GOP strategist Patrick Ruffini on Tuesday.