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.
On the other hand, Colorado is appealing to the Obama campaign because it is a classic Obama coalition state. Rather than being filled with working-class white Democrats who are skeptical of the African-American law professor—the sort of folks who have moved Indiana into Romney’s column—Colorado embodies America’s new demographics. Its population is younger, more Latino and much more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the country as a whole. While it is not an industrial powerhouse, it is also not “right to work,” so service-sector unions such as SEIU can play an important role in mobilizing
On some level, the battle for Colorado can be seen in starkly racial terms. A Romney rally in Denver that attracted 6,000 attendees appeared to have more minorities—about half a dozen—in the press riser than in the audience. Most attendees are bald, gray-haired or both. Even at a “Juntos Con Romney,” rally with Marco Rubio and other Latino speakers, the crowd is mostly white. Obama events, by contrast, are Benetton ad–esque. Colorado’s swing counties tend to lean more Republican in off-year elections such as 2010, when Republicans regained control of the state legislature, than in presidential elections, because of the changes in electoral demographics. (Younger voters and Latinos are less likely to come out in off years, leaving an older, whiter and more Republican cohort). And so it is essential to both campaigns that they make the electorate as this year as favorable as possible.
The big bellwether counties—the inner-ring Denver suburbs of Jefferson and Arapahoe, and Larimer County, surrounding Fort Collins—have more registered Republicans than Democrats, even though they all went for Obama in 2008. The voters in these counties, as well as Adams County, also in suburban Denver, may determine the outcome of the election. “If somebody wins all those counties, or three of them, he is going to win,” says former Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat. Republicans and Democrats do not agree on many things, but they speak with one voice on this: it is in these suburbs that Colorado’s nine electoral votes will be decided. Colorado also has a divided legislature and three competitive House races. Both parties are trying to mobilize voters for all of these races at once, in the same handful of battlegrounds. “State legislative victories will be determined largely in the same swing counties and districts that will help decide this year’s presidential race—namely, Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties,” wrote Michelle Selesky, communications director for GOPAC, in a recent e-mail to supporters.
According to Roy, Republican phone bankers do not have to talk about the issues, because their voters’ views are already solidified. What they need to do is bump the turnout among El Paso county Republicans from 67 percent in 2008 to 75 percent this year. “We don’t need to talk issues,” says Roy. “I get very frustrated because people will come to me and say, ‘I just saw something about Obama as a flag burner, boy that will turn the election!’ No it won’t. Other than the debates, there is no incident or issue that will turn the election at this point.”
The Romney field office in Adams County is nothing like the storefront Obama office in Boulder. Both offices seem to reflect the campaigns and even the candidates themselves. Obama’s Boulder office has large bay windows, as if to emphasize transparency, wood floors and a quirky layout. Romney’s Adams County office is hidden behind a parking lot in a low-slung, awkwardly shaped beige office building. Since there is no foot traffic, it is not outwardly festooned with the usual campaign posters. Inside, there are a handful of volunteers making phone calls. Their average age looks to be about 65. On the dry-erase board there is a motivational list of who has made the most calls that week and throughout the campaign, like at a telemarketing firm. They call registered voters, regardless of party, ask if they support Romney and if the answer is yes offer to send a mail-in ballot. Then they enter the data and move on. Several volunteers told me they have been doing this several days per week for months, and it has always been a variation on this same script, never a persuasion effort targeting undecided voters.
Phone banking may not be as effective a method for mobilizing Obama’s young supporters. Many of them do not have landlines. So you must find them where they are. In Boulder, there are three daily voter registration and mobilization operations on campus. The Obama campaign and two non-partisan groups, New Era Colorado and COPIRG. Each of them mans a table inside the University of Colorado student center or out front, around the fountain dedicated to Dalton Trumbo, Colorado alum and Hollywood blacklist victim. The Obama campaign also goes door-knocking on weekends. They try to persuade everyone to vote in state, even students from, say, California, on the grounds that their vote will count more in a swing state. Colorado’s early voting system is a boon to efforts to turn out notoriously recalcitrant students, and there are early voting stations on campus. The Obama campaign encourages early voting rather than voting by mail, since that requires a photocopy of an identification card for first-time voters and other technical hoops that they fear students may not successfully jump through. The Obama campaign office in Boulder also has students and recent graduates, even ones from other countries, making phone calls. But the emphasis is more on in-person voter contact than at the Romney field office.
New Era, which is focused on engaging young Coloradans in the political process, conducts voter registration drives on campus every election year. They’ve achieved some impressive results. College students and young people tend to move frequently, and so many of them make a biannual stop at the New Era table to update their registration. According to Molly Fitzpatrick, New Era’s Boulder organizing director, they had 6,200 registrations as of October 1. (The state registration deadline was October 9.)
Although many of the registration efforts are nonpartisan, and even the Obama campaign has registered plenty of Republicans in Boulder, it is clear whom a strong turnout in Boulder will benefit. The disdain for young people is evident when I ask Joe Coors, the Republican nominee for Congress in Colorado’s 7th District, about the presidential race’s ground game in Colorado. “Obama is aimed more at the younger people and Romney is aimed more at people that are actually working for a living,” says Coors.
One of the privileges of incumbency is that Obama got a head start on voter mobilization. He has fifty-five field offices in Colorado to Romney’s fourteen. “The basis of a good ground game is that you have to build it over time,” Robert Gibbs, a senior Obama campaign advisor tells The Nation. “Romney has tried to build a field organization in weeks, not a year. People were freaked out that we were spending too much money early on, but we were spending it on the right things.”
The Obama campaign is notably secretive about the details of its field operation. It refuses to divulge any metrics for voter contacts, or to allow reporters on canvassing trips. The Romney campaign offered that it hit its one-millionth Colorado voter contact in mid-September. By the end of the month, it had knocked on six times more doors and made four times as many phone calls as the Republican campaign did in all of 2008.
Besides having more offices, the Obama campaign has also done more than Romney to integrate field organizing into their rallies. When Romney spoke in Denver last week his campaign set up tables for phone banking, which were about half full with volunteers reading from a printed-out script and calling on cellphones. As always, it was about collecting voter information, not making the case for Romney. “We will be calling to advocate for our cause but more importantly to survey individuals to discover who they are planning on supporting,” read the instructions. “We use this information to target things like mailings and media buys.”
Obama, who held his rally on an unseasonably cold morning in an outdoor park, did not do have phone banking tables. But he did have young, Latina campaign field organizer Terrina Gogue spend ten minutes exhorting the crowd to get involved in mobilizing their neighbors. She asked the audience to volunteer, to register to vote and shouted out a local volunteer by name. Gogue urged the crowd repeatedly to visit GottaVote.org, an Obama campaign portal for voter registration. “Take out your phone,” demanded Gogue. “We need you to commit to one shift for this month.” You can do so merely by texting.
“How many doors would you knock if it means your mom can get a small business loan and follow her dream?” Said Gogue. “How many people would you call if it meant your daughter, like myself, could get health insurance? How many people would you canvass if it meant you could marry who you love?”
Likewise, in a return to his 2008 message, Obama flattered the crowd by telling them it was they, not he, who could change the country for the next four years. “You’re the reason a woman outside Durango [Colorado] with cancer can get insurance and treatment,” he said. “We couldn’t do it without you, Denver!” Obama also presented volunteering for his campaign as the way to combat the influence of nefarious forces in politics. “If you give up, other people fill the void: lobbyists, special interests…folks trying to make it harder for you to vote, who want to tell women about their medical decisions,” he argued.
By contrast, the only mobilization effort at Romney’s rally was a request he made, at the end of his speech, to “find someone who voted for Obama last time,” and convert them.
“The impression I have, and everything I hear, is the Obama ground game is better,” says John Straayer, an expert on Colorado politics who teaches Colorado State University. Straayer recently examined the increase in voter registration over the last month in the most heavily Latino counties and found that they outpaced the rate in the state as a whole. “Colorado is rich with Hispanic voters, but they’ve underperformed historically [in turnout],” notes Straayer. But the registration numbers suggest that Democrats are focusing on increasing Latino participation, and that it is working.
If Romney is going to catch up, he does not have much time left. The election in Colorado is already being decided. In Colorado voters can mail in ballots as of October 15 and vote in person beginning on October 22. In 2008, 78 percent of the votes were cast prior to Election Day.
But Romney will be getting help from outside sources that John McCain did not. Americans for Prosperity, the fiscally conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, was not around in 2008. Now it has five paid field organizers in Colorado. Each AFP organizer can draw on the strength of actual grassroots Tea Party groups. The Colorado Tea Party Patriots, for example, are offering up their members to do canvassing at the direction of AFP’s paid professionals. “We’ve got more than sixty groups across the state,” says Regina Thomson, who coordinates an umbrella of Tea Party organizations in Colorado. “We’re actively getting involved with organizations like AFP because they’ve already got walk lists and infrastructure to make it happen.”
But when it comes to canvassing, Obama holds a geographic advantage. To mobilize voters in inner-city Denver, or Boulder, one can stand on the street or walk down a residential street ringing bells. Much of Republican Colorado is simply not accessible in that way. “We hope to reach all 172,000 [registered Republicans in El Paso county], realistically if we reach 75,000 we’re doing very well,” says Roy. “That’s just the reality of distance. We have rural areas that you can’t walk.” To compensate, the GOP is augmenting its phone banks by buying ads on local conservative talk radio and sending mail to registered Republicans, urging them to vote.
Colorado has one distinctive demographic feature that does play to Romney’s advantage. It is 4.8 percent Mormon. The church is officially politically neutral and not engaged in electioneering. (When I asked the main Mormon Church in Denver if it was doing any nonpartisan voter mobilization the answer was a terse, “No.”) But Mormons, an already Republican-leaning group, are sure to come out in droves for the first Mormon major party presidential nominee. Underground, unofficial voter turnout efforts in the church have come to the national media’s attention. Buzzfeed reported on a viral e-mail being received by Mormons all over the West, calling for them to fast and pray on September 30 for Romney to do well in the presidential debates. A Mormon Church official in Nevada distributed a presentation urging Mormons to speak “with one voice” in the presidential election.
Being a Mormon, particularly one who used to support gay rights and abortion rights, is not particularly advantageous in Colorado’s much larger evangelical community. But even among evangelicals, Colorado’s large Mormon population is a boon. Colorado Republicans say that anti-Mormon bias among evangelicals is not an issue in the Rocky Mountain West as it is in the South. “Mormons in the West are a bigger part of the community,” says John Suthers, Colorado’s Republican Attorney General. “Everyone has Mormon friends and coworkers.” That is not just hopeful Republican spin. “As much as anywhere the country there is no anti-Mormon feeling as there is in the Bible Belt or some parts of the country,” concurs Mike Stratton, a Denver-based national Democratic strategist.
And evangelicals are as motivated by Obama-hatred as any part of the Republican base. “Whatever reservations they have about Romney pale next to Obama,” says Suthers. “Beating Obama is their number-one goal in life right now.”
“Most evangelicals think Obama is a Muslim or the Antichrist himself,” says Roy. “They think the Mormon is more in their camp than the Muslim is. I don’t think Obama is a Muslim. I think the whole thing with Pastor Wright in 2008 would have disproved that, but that’s a pervasive sentiment.”
But in Colorado, the cultural alienation card can be played both ways. In 2010, Michael Bennet—a Democrat who had been appointed in 2009 and had never run for office before and barely won his primary—managed to eke out a win in the general election despite a national Republican wave that flipped two congressional seats in Colorado. He was lucky that his opponent, Ken Buck, was a far-right Tea Party insurrectionist who was prone to making inflammatory statements, such as comparing homosexuality to alcoholism. But Ritter says that Bennet’s campaign provides a model for Obama to mimic against Romney. “Michael Bennet probably won that race because he tarred his opponent as someone who is unacceptable to moderate Republican and independent women,” says Ritter. Emphasizing education and social issues is the way Obama could do the same to Romney. And, sure enough, Obama has run television commercials on abortion rights in Colorado, even in heavily evangelical El Paso County.
Thanks to an increasingly extreme Republican Party, the electorate is as polarized as ever. On both sides, the presidential campaign’s ground game is designed to exploit, rather than ameliorate, that polarization. That’s good politics. One phone call from a stranger won’t convince many people to change their political allegiances. But it won’t make it any easier to unite the country on November 7.