Denver—Colorado is supposed to be Mitt Romney’s most promising major swing state. According to Politico’s Mike Allen, Republicans’ internal polls show Romney ahead in Colorado, even as they acknowledge that he has fallen behind in Florida, Ohio and Nevada. Other Republican-leaning polls, such as Rasmussen Reports, show Romney with a slight edge here, although Rasmussen’s most recent poll is two weeks old. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows Obama ahead in Colorado by three points, which is consistent with Virginia and Florida, but smaller than Obama’s commanding leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
But Colorado presents Romney with a challenge. In order to win it he must simultaneously appeal to three constituencies: the ardent conservatives—both religious social conservatives and current and retired military personnel—in the Colorado Springs area, the more economically focused Republicans in the Denver suburbs and at least half of the state’s large independent electorate.
The Romney campaign is aware of the importance of the state’s nine electoral votes. Romney has already visited the state repeatedly, and in advance of Wednesday night’s debate in Denver his campaign has scheduled a series of events. Ann Romney will hold a rally here on Tuesday and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) will hold one on Wednesday. On Monday night, Romney spoke in a warplane museum—Republicans seem to love that as a setting for campaign stops—in Denver. It was apparent from Romney’s remarks that he is carefully trying to balance the aforementioned constituencies. But, ultimately, he is betting that he already has the most ardent conservatives in his pocket and so he avoids any mention of his party’s polarizing stance on social issues.
Romney was introduced by John Elway, the legendary Denver Broncos quarterback, who just endorsed Romney. In what passes by Romney’s standards as regular guy sports talk, Romney effused, “You guys have some real teams here, no doubt about that!” He then went on to list to the Denver area’s other assets: “This is the home of the Air Force Academy, of NORAD, that helps keep our skies safe, home to great universities.” It appeared not to have dawned on Romney, nor his enthusiastically clapping audience, that the US military is a government program and that Colorado’s universities are all either public or draw heavily upon federal support for student tuition and research. But the biggest applause by far came when Romney said, “and it’s the home of Focus on the Family.” (The socially conservative advocacy organization, like NORAD and the Air Force Academy, is based in Colorado Springs, about an hour from Denver.)
Given the subtle signal his crowd sent—that these are what used to be called “family values” voters—you might have expected Romney to talk about how he plans to stifle gay marriage, appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and free Catholic organizations from covering employees’ health insurance for contraception.
But no. Romney delivered his usual litany of vague, bogus economic promises. He will simultaneously increase free trade and get tough on China. He will hand out drilling rights on federal land like it’s candy, and somehow that will create millions of jobs by magically bringing back the manufacturing sector thanks to cheap energy. He will defenestrate teachers unions, so that our workforce is better educated and cut spending to balance the budget. And by extending the Bush tax cuts he will make small businesses grow and then they will go on a hiring spree. Isn’t Romney lucky that every long-held Republican plot to please a group of Republican donors, or antagonize a group of Democratic donors, is also sure to induce economic growth?
In case the message were not clear enough, there were giant letters behind Romney’s lectern: “J-O-B-S.” The only supplement to his economic message was a nauseating pander to Colorado’s large military population. Romney attacked the sequestration defense spending cuts that President Obama agreed to with the Republican Congress, and for which his own running mate, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), voted. “It will cost thousands of jobs here, and millions of jobs across the country,” Romney complained.
Millions of jobs? That sounded exaggerated to me. And sure enough, it is. Romney did not cite a source. Knowing Romney, he may have simply made it up out of thin air. But most likely he is referring to a report by the Aerospace Industries Association, which claimed, “A total of 1,090,359 jobs with a total labor income of $46.5 billion would be lost due to DOD budget cuts in FY 2012-FY 2013.” However, as the Brookings Institution explained, the AIA estimate is totally bogus. (This should come as no surprise, given AIA’s vested interest in the subject.) As Brookings notes, the AIA is predicting that a 10 percent cut to defense spending will lead to one-third of all jobs in the defense and aeronautics industries being eliminated. This is extraordinarily unlikely, especially in light of the fact that not even all of those jobs are defense-related.
But even if what Romney said were true, it’s a disgusting sentiment. We should spend everyone else’s hard-earned tax dollars on building weapons simply to keep people employed? This is wasteful big government at its absolute worst.
“I do not believe in shrinking the military,” declared Romney. “I believe it should be second to none in the world.” Romney did not bother to explain why the sequestration cuts would make the US military lose its spot as number one in the world. Nor did he say who would replace us. The United States spends about six times as much as its nearest competitor, China. So it would still vastly outspend China if the sequestration cuts do occur.
Romney effort to tie his views on military spending to his economic pitch was a vague statement that “we need a strong economy to support a strong military.” Almost as an afterthought he added, “We need strong homes.”
And that was about it, as far as social conservatism was concerned. Not a single one of the infamous “three Gs”—God, guns and gays—that Republicans once used to peel away working-class and rural white voters appeared in the speech. There was no mention of abortion or stem cell research. The only time Romney came to close to mentioning any of that was when he claimed, “The founders [had a] great insight that rights come from the Creator, not the government.” That’s a nonsensical false dichotomy: the founders saw fit to enshrine those same rights in the Constitution, the basis of their new government. But Romney was not trying to be historically accurate. His purpose was to nod to theocrats while wrapping even his token religious reference into an argument for small government. Except for military spending, everything with Romney comes back to fiscal conservatism.
That may not please of all his supporters. A young woman named Carol whom I met on the way into the speech said she likes Romney “because he is a conservative like me, he is pro-life, like me.” But you would never know Romney opposes abortion rights from hearing him speak. Lee Ann Barnhart, a middle-aged mother in attendance, told me that she was disappointed that social issues were never mentioned. Still, she is growing to like Romney, she said. (She supported Gingrich during the primaries.)
Romney’s calculation is clearly that he can count on these voters coming out for him in opposition to Obama, and so he can avoid reminding swing voters of the Republican War on Women. It’s probably wise politics. But Democrats devoted much of their convention to making sure women are not fooled. The question now is whether that message gets through.
The election is only thirty-five days away. For more swing state coverage, read Ari Berman’s reporting on voter supression in Florida.