Road to the White House runs through Colorado

Experts say Colorado could be the state that tips the 2012 presidential election. “It will be hard to win a close election without winning Colorado,” said Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy.

It’s not just local political observers who think Colorado will be key. In a front page story today, The New York Times reports that Obama’s hopes for a second term may come down to Colorado and a couple of other states.

From The Times:

While Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have slid across the board as unemployment remains high, what buoys Democrats are the changing demographics of formerly Republican states like Colorado, where Democrats won a close Senate race in 2010, as well as Virginia and North Carolina.

With growing cities and suburbs, they are populated by increasing numbers of educated and higher-income independents, young voters, Hispanics and African-Americans, many of them alienated by Republicans’ Tea Party agenda.

Loevy said he and other Colorado political scientists have been talking about Colorado’s shifting demographic for years.

“The New York Times has caught up with what we’ve been saying for some time. The political changes in Colorado have now passed into the general public currency,” Loevy said.

He said it used to be that in Colorado the Republican Party could count on the support of upscale, educated white voters but that those voters are turned off by the Tea Party and by hard-right rhetoric on social issues.

Many of them, he said, have retained their membership in the GOP and still vote Republican most of the time, but that given a choice between a hard-right Republican and a moderate Democrat, a lot of them are choosing the Democrat. “We saw that in the Bennet-Buck race,” he noted.

The Times also pointed to the Bennet victory as a model for what Obama needs to do in Colorado.

In Colorado, the template for a repeat victory is last year’s campaign of Senator Michael Bennet. A Democratic novice, Mr. Bennet defeated a Tea Party Republican in a year when Republicans were triumphant nationwide. He built a coalition of Latino voters, Democrats like himself who are college-educated transplants to Colorado, and independents in Denver and Boulder.

“No candidate can win this state without winning independent voters,” said Mr. Bennet, who joined Mr. Obama on his Denver visit, along with Gov. John W. Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall; all three will help Mr. Obama’s organization there in 2012.

With independents, Mr. Bennet said, “The question that resonated in 2010 was, Do you want somebody who will go to Washington and try to work to solve problems, or do you want somebody who will simply be a partisan?” They will seek a problem-solver again next year, he added, “and I think the president has a strong case to make.”

A challenge for Mr. Obama in Colorado and elsewhere is mobilizing Hispanic voters, many of whom complain that he has not tried hard enough to overcome Republican opposition to immigration legislation. And appealing to independents will require some deft politics, since Mr. Obama’s recent switch to a more confrontational approach with Congressional Republicans could cost independent support even as he energizes Democratic voters.

Loevy, an activist Republican himself, said he expects the Colorado Republican caucuses will probably come down to Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Perry, he said, will appeal to the Tea Party side of the party, while Romney will appeal more to traditional Republicans. He says high turnout will favor Romney, while a lower turnout will favor Perry in Colorado.

Romney has the best chance to lure the upscale educated Republicans back into the party. If Romney can win, it will be good for the party. Clearly, Mitt Romney would have the best chance in the general election. I expect a real fight in Colorado, though, where traditionally the conservatives will come out strong in the caucuses and the primary.”

Just as Hispanics were a key constituency for Bennet in 2010, The Times notes that as working class whites shift toward the Republican Party, ethnic voters become a larger part of the voter pool each election and are likely to continue voting Democratic.

From Friday’s Times again:

Terry Nelson, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, John McCain and, this year, the former candidate Tim Pawlenty, said he was “pretty optimistic” for 2012, partly because Mr. Obama’s support among lower-income, less-educated white voters, never high, has dropped enough that Republicans see good prospects for winning industrial-belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But, Mr. Nelson acknowledged: “The country is changing. In every election cycle, every year, every day, this country becomes more ethnically diverse. And that has an impact on the kind of coalition that you need to put together to win.” He added, “The truth is, Obama needs fewer white voters in 2012 than he did in 2008.”

Mr. Obama’s recent travel reflects his calculus. On Tuesday, he was in Colorado, at a high school in a heavily Hispanic Denver neighborhood, to promote his jobs plan. This month he was in Ohio, but also in Virginia and North Carolina; he may return soon on a bus tour of neighboring states, aides say. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was in Northern Virginia on Thursday.

Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado together have more than double the number of Ohio’s votes in the Electoral College — 37 versus 18. And Obama advisers say that the same demographic factors at play in those states are also present in states Mr. Obama lost in 2008 — like Arizona (whose senior senator, Mr. McCain, was his rival) and Georgia.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.