From Greeley to Grand Junction, the Barack Obama campaign is sowing excitement that the Illinois senator hopes will translate into caucus gold.The Barack Obama campaign has invested tremendous resources in Colorado leading up to tomorrow’s caucus, opening 12 offices around the state in places often overlooked by Democratic candidates. The Illinois senator hopes to lay a strong foundation in the state, which has a history of supporting independent-minded candidates and is up for grabs in November.
With 70 delegates at stake, Colorado is a small prize on a day when two dozen states will be holding primaries or caucuses. But large or small, Obama has to go where it is winnable, says Floyd Ciruli, of Ciruli Associates, a public policy research firm in Denver.
“The investment Obama makes here now could serve him well in November if he gets the nomination,” Ciruli said. “This is Gary Hart’s state – we like candidates who are intellectual, who think differently from the party establishment.”
Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton are locked in a tight race in Colorado, and while their positions on issues might be nearly as close as their polling numbers, the candidates are leading very different campaigns.
The Obama strategy in Colorado, which is similar to the candidate’s efforts in other states thus far, relies on a wide network of volunteers who help organize caucus trainings, precinct parties, town hall meetings, phone banks and targeted canvassing in communities from Denver to Durango.
“Reaching out to caucus-goers on an individual basis is something easier to do in each locality rather than sitting in Denver trying to dictate how things in the rest of the state should operate,” said Josh Freed, communications director for Colorado for Obama. “Colorado is much more than just the metro area.”
While Obama is known to have strong support among affluent liberals and college students, he has also done well in rural areas. In Nevada, he beat Clinton in nine of 14 rural Republican-dominated counties.
“Whether it’s a 55-year-old mom from Jefferson County, a 21-year-old college student from Boulder or a rancher from around La Junta, this is a campaign that is working with people of every background in every part of the state,” Freed said.
Mark Hanson is renting his law office in Fort Collins to the Obama campaign for six weeks. Hanson spends about 10 hours a week phoning Democrats in Larimer County and providing information about the caucus.
Hanson says the fact the Obama campaign has an official presence in Fort Collins has struck favor among voters used to being skipped over by presidential campaigns.
“All of a sudden our opinion matters, and I think people are very grateful the campaign is paying attention to us for a change.”
While Obama’s campaign in Colorado and elsewhere relies heavily on volunteers and grassroots organizing, Clinton is running a more traditional campaign relying on endorsements, union support and the existing political infrastructure, says Ciruli.
“I think Clinton saw herself as a new phenomenon – a woman, a liberal. And while she is part of Washington, I don’t think she thought she was going to be perceived as the establishment candidate, but she is. She’s doing well with women, but she is doing better with older women and older voters in general.”
An outsider candidate like Obama – someone popular with young people, intellectuals and liberals – usually loses against a more traditional candidate like Clinton, Ciruli says. But Obama looks poised to possibly beat the odds.
“Two things make him exceptional,” Ciruli said. “One, he has an incredible amount of money; usually these candidates are underfunded compared to establishment candidates who get establishment money. Two, (Clinton) has not been able to undermine his message. She argues no experience, no detail in his plans, but there is such a yearning for change. He has a different approach, and his constituents get it. They are not arguing he needs more detail in his health plan.”
Clinton may be the establishment candidate but clearly many of the Washington-entrenched are opposed to another four to eight years of a Clinton administration. That has opened the door for Obama to pick up some big endorsements from political icons like the Kennedys, which may indicate Clinton has a problem.
One area where Clinton does have strong support is among Hispanic voters. A December report by the Pew Hispanic Center found Hispanics heavily favor Clinton over Obama for the Democratic nomination.
Both campaigns are aggressively targeting Latino voters. Each is taping TV and radio spots in Spanish, appearing on Spanish-language news programs, speaking in Latino districts and recruiting Latino volunteers to canvass neighborhoods.
The Colorado for Hillary Hispanic Leadership Council is a group of leaders from Latino communities who work with Latino groups across the state to organize meetings and events to drum up support for Clinton.
Gil Reyes is the Adams County assessor and a member of the Hispanic Leadership Council. Last Thursday, Reyes joined a group of Clinton supporters at a Mexican restaurant in northwest Denver, where they watched their candidate square off in a debate against Obama. Over tacos and margaritas, the group praised Clinton as the candidate most sensitive to issues important to Latinos.
“We remember the eight years when President Clinton was in office – our lives were better; there was real help, and people remember that,” Reyes said. “Senator Obama? We don’t know anything about him.”
Clinton’s traction among Latino voters may not be enough to finish on top tomorrow night. Obama’s message of hope and change has proved more infectious than many would have predicted. But regardless of who wins the Democratic caucus in Colorado, the prize is merely bragging rights.
“There may be a numeric winner, but these people are so closely matched, whoever ‘loses’ will leave with 40 percent of the delegates,” Ciruli said.
Whether the Obama enthusiasm machine will translate into actual caucus-goers tomorrow is unknown. Perhaps older voters, who are used to the process and tend to support Clinton, will rule the day and lead her to victory. The traditionalists are certainly hoping that is the case, but Ciruli notes that the story of this campaign has been increased turnout. He predicts 100,000 people will caucus in Colorado tomorrow, smashing the norm of 40,000 to 50,000.
“We have this incredible little spark of optimism to think that somebody can go back to Washington and shake it up, and that’s the promise Obama gives,” Ciruli said. “Hillary has held her own, but these caucuses will definitely not be dominated by the old guard.”