With Trump catching up in the polls, Colorado looks like a swing state again

John Hickenlooper and Hillary Clinton at a rally in Commerce City. August 3, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)john hickenlooper; hillary clinton; politics; election; vote; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; commerce city; colorado;
John Hickenlooper and Hillary Clinton at a rally in Commerce City. August 3, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

For much of the summer, political analysts were wondering if Colorado even counts as a swing state anymore, but narrowing polls and lack of enthusiasm for the major party candidates have them taking a new look.

In one new Reuters-Ipsos poll, Donald Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points, the Denver Post reports. That’s within the margin of error, but it’s the first lead he’s posted in Colorado all year, according to reporter John Frank.

Then there’s a Washington Post/Survey Monkey poll released last week, which put Colorado back in the “toss up” category when third-party candidates were included. The Post’s Dan Balz follows that up with a story that looks at Democratic concerns about keeping Colorado in their camp.

“The Democratic vote is consolidate [behind Clinton],” a party strategist told the Washington Post. “But enthusiasm is not like it was in 2012 and certainly not like 2008.”

Robert Blaha, Trump’s state chairman, said Clinton has “peaked” here, and he believes the real challenge for Republicans is just turnout.

Concern about complacency isn’t new. Every post-convention poll that showed Clinton with a commanding lead was met with public caution by her team here in Colorado.

Here’s Kristin Lynch, a member of Clinton’s communications team here and a veteran of Colorado Democratic politics, back in mid-August.

For all their newfound hope and energy, Colorado Republicans still describe certain barriers for Trump.

“I think the polls have narrowed,” Dick Wadhams, the former Republican Party chair, told the Washington Post. “But it’s still very tough for Donald Trump to win because of college-educated voters and Hispanics who are reluctant to vote for him.”

Steve House, the Colorado Republican Committee chairman, told the Washington Post that Trump needs to “calm down” and reassure voters.

“He’s got to make it okay to vote for him,” he said.

Democrats, for their part, are trying to make sure their key voting blocks, the groups that are supposed to make Colorado a demographic inevitability for Team Blue, actually vote in November.

Latinos in Colorado have been harder to motivate than in other battleground states like Nevada, a campaign advisor told the Washington Post, so it’s taking more effort to make sure Colorado sees the turnout that will keep Clinton comfortable.

There’s also concern that Colorado’s all-mail elections might suppress turnout for young voters, who are used to doing things electronically.

As a potentially nervous Democrat put it, how many have stamps? “The mail-in ballot is a curve ball for us,” said Emmy Ruiz, Clinton’s state director.

I have to confess I don’t entirely buy this. There is no state where you can vote by app, and the alternative to mailing a ballot or dropping one off is waiting in line to vote in person. If I’ve learned anything about kids today from the internet, it’s that they hate doing things in person.

Nonetheless, there is a risk that younger voters — traditionally a Democratic constituency — might sit this one out in higher numbers than in 2008 and 2012.

Not everyone thinks Democrats have much to worry about.

Defying the new conventional wisdom, sticking with the old conventional wisdom, The Atlantic’s Molly Ball calls Colorado “the state that fell off the electoral map.”

Ball grew up in Centennial, in Arapahoe County, one of the nation’s swing counties. She goes to the playground of her old school, to the parking lot of her old grocery store, to the streets of her old neighborhood. Voters she talks to aren’t in love with Clinton, per se, but no one likes Trump.

The question she puts to political strategists and party activists is whether this is a fluke of the 2016 cycle and its very unusual Republican nominee or part of a long-term trend in Colorado.

There are two overlapping narratives for Colorado’s switch from red to blue. One is demographic: For the past couple of decades, Colorado’s population has grown, becoming younger, more urban, and more diverse. The new voters tend to be Democrats, and there are now about 20,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, the first time in 20 years the GOP has not had the advantage.

The other narrative is partisan realignment. To put it bluntly, over the past decade in Colorado, the Democrats moved to the center, while the Republicans went nuts. (Top Colorado Republicans and Democrats alike agreed with this assessment.) Local Democratic candidates, aided by a cabal of wealthy donors, began emphasizing quality-of-life issues like education and public safety; Republicans kept putting up Tea Party-inspired fringe candidates who said outlandish things and emphasized divisive cultural issues. The middle-class soccer moms of places like Centennial started to peel away.

Wadhams, the former Republican state chair who worked for the moderate Jack Graham in the Senate primary but nonetheless backs Trump in the general, thinks his party can still be competitive here.

“It’s not that a fiscally conservative, pro-life candidate can’t win in Colorado,” Wadhams told Ball. “But number one, you don’t campaign on that. And number two, you take up an issue that shows you’ve got something outside the regular Republican agenda.”

The suburban voter is no longer guaranteed to be a Republican.

“Those unaffiliated voters in Jefferson and Arapahoe have always been hard,” Wadhams continued. “They’re socially liberal but fiscally conservative. It takes a special kind of Republican to win them—someone like Cory Gardner.”

And while Trump is hardly a traditional Republican candidate, he’s no Cory Gardner.


Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.