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By Jay Cost

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Swing State Review: Colorado

Today we continue our Swing State Review with an examination of Colorado, whose recent electoral behavior has been more dynamic than Pennsylvania or Ohio.

The following chart makes this clear by examining the "Republican tilt" of Colorado compared to Pennsylvania and Ohio. Republican tilt is measured by the margin of victory (or defeat) for the Republican presidential candidate in the state minus his national margin. So, if a state supports the Republican more than the whole country, it has a Republican tilt.

Colorado Partisanship.jpg

We noted in our Pennsylvania review that the Keystone State has exhibited a slight, pro-Democratic tilt over the years, which can be seen in this chart. For Ohio, we noted that it generally votes slightly more Republican than the nation. This too is clear.

Meanwhile, Colorado's behavior has been more variable. Of course, the variability is not entirely "random." Though the line bounces around quite a bit, it still has a downward slope, which indicates that it has moved from the right to the middle. When analysts suggest that Colorado is an emerging purple state, this is what they are on about.1

Thus, it's reasonable to assume that if the national vote is close this year, Colorado will be close, too. Let's take a closer look at the state to see if we can get an idea of what to expect.

Let's begin by investigating the partisanship of different parts of the state. Once again, we'll use Republican tilt as our metric, but instead of reviewing the state as a whole, let's break it into segments: the seven largest metropolitan areas, plus a "Small Town/Rural" segment that captures the rest of the state. 2

We'll examine the four most populous areas first.

Presidential Partisanship 2.jpg

Interestingly, we see Colorado becoming polarized over time. In 1952, these areas differed only slightly in their partisan preferences. They all sat on the Republican side of the aisle, and the differences among them were less than 20 points. Flash forward fifty-two years and we see significant polarization. Colorado Springs has become more Republican, Boulder strongly Democratic, Denver slightly Democratic,3 and the rural areas essentially unchanged.4

This indicates why Colorado is a swing state. Both parties have solid, sizable bases of support. Additionally, the most powerful part of the state, metropolitan Denver, sits in the middle. While it has a slight Democratic lean, both parties can play in metro Denver.

Let's take an even closer look by examining particular elections. We must be careful in how we do this. Because Colorado has only recently begun to behave as a swing state, we should favor recent statewide elections in our analysis. Building a set of expectations from older elections might bias our estimates toward the past alignment. So, let's stick to recent events.

Fortunately for us, Colorado offered two great data points in 2006. For Secretary of State, Republican Mike Coffman won a 1.6-point win over Democrat Ken Gordon. For State Treasurer, Democrat Cary Kennedy won a 2.6-point victory over Republican Mark Hillman.

Let's also include John Kerry's 4.7-point defeat as a baseline. The following chart reviews how the three Democratic candidates - Kerry in 2004, Gordon in 2006, and Kennedy in 2006 - performed statewide, as well as in the four most populous parts of the state.

Democratic Margin of Victory 1.jpg

What made the difference between victory for Kennedy and defeat for Kerry? Obviously, Kennedy improved relative to Kerry in all four quadrants, but there are two noteworthy features to her win.

First, she improved relative to Kerry in the rural areas. She didn't win them. In fact, she lost them by 6 points. But Kerry lost them by 15 points.

Second, Kennedy won metropolitan Denver by a comfortable margin - around 9 points. Kerry and Gordon both won metro Denver, but their margins (around 3 points each) were smaller. For Gordon, this was probably enough to keep him from winning.5

This gives us a pretty specific sense of what each candidate must do in November. However, the story is slightly more complicated than this. Until now we have operated under the assumption that Colorado's vote will be close if the nation's vote is close. While this is generally reasonable, there are two caveats to add.

First, while Denver has split down the middle in the last five presidential elections, 2004 saw it vote more Democratic than any time since 1952. Is this simply an "outlying" point around a central tendency of moderation, or is it a signal that the city is moving to the Democratic Party? It is too soon to say. If Denver continues to vote down the middle, we should expect Colorado to stay in the middle. If, on the other hand, it votes more Democratic, the whole state will shift to the left.6

Second, Colorado's population has been growing rapidly - by more than 30% in the last eighteen years. Much of this has been due to an increase in the Hispanic population. The following graph reviews changes in the Hispanic population in the most populous portions of the state.7

Hispanic Population As Percent of Whole.jpg

The electoral implications of this immigration have not been fully felt. In 2000, Hispanics accounted for about 17% of the state's total population, but 14% of the presidential electorate. In 2004, they were estimated to account for nearly 19% of the state's population, but just 9% of the presidential vote. This is about the share they made up in 1998 and 1996.

If Hispanics in Colorado begin to vote proportional to their numbers, Democrats should enjoy at least a short-term advantage. Despite George W. Bush's best attempts to attract Hispanics, John Kerry still won them in Colorado by better than 2-to-1.

Practically speaking, this means that our assumption about Colorado voting roughly as the country votes, while reasonable, is not a certainty. Simply put, Colorado is a state in flux. It's moved from reliably Republican to a swing state in recent years. It remains to be seen whether this is just a stop on the way to some final left-of-center destination.

We now have a good idea of the electoral landscape in Colorado. Let's tie all of these considerations into a "bottom line" conclusion. Here are four things to watch on Election Day.

(1) Metropolitan Denver. Denver is the critical battlefield because it's so large and sits in the middle. It will probably tip the state one way or the other on Election Day. Expect Obama to carry metro Denver. The question is: by what margin? Kerry won it by about 3 points. Obama will need to win it by close to 7-9.

(2) Hispanics. Will Hispanics comprise around 15% of the vote, or will they once again be counted lower than 10%? That could make a huge differences for Obama, assuming they go strongly for him. Will they? That's the other big question. From recent poll numbers, it looks as though Obama is on track to match Kerry's performance, but it is still early.

(3) Rural and small town areas. These parts of Colorado are often overlooked because no one place is particularly large. However, collectively they add up to the second largest category we have defined, so they should not be taken for granted. Can Obama improve over Kerry? Rural voters back east were not inclined to him during the primaries, but he did reasonably well with them in Oregon and New Mexico. If he can hold his own in rural Colorado, keeping his margin of defeat in the high single-digits, he'll be well positioned.

(4) Boulder and Colorado Springs. These towns are symbols of Colorado's political polarization over the last fifty years. Boulder has trended leftward, Colorado Springs rightward. This year, the parties have nominated candidates who supposedly possess cross-partisan appeal. Do they? I doubt it, but if they do, we might see Boulder and Colorado Springs break from their recent patterns. Electorally speaking, conflicting movement would cancel each other out. What would be consequential is if both places moved in the same direction. Combined, Boulder and Colorado Springs typically account for 20% of the state's vote.

We'll cover Virginia next.


[1] The current political alignment of the Centennial State, while new in many respects, nevertheless has roots in days long gone. The following picture makes that point.

Colorado Montage.jpg

These elections are separated by some 64 years, and yet the countywide voting patterns are extremely similar. This indicates that Colorado has exhibited both change and continuity over the years. The change has come from the fact that FDR did very well relative to prior or subsequent Democrats. A tight race in Colorado was not something any Democrat could typically count on then, or for many years to come. Today, they can. That's the change. The continuity is the similarity between the countywide vote patterns. Close races then and now could be expected to produce roughly similar countywide results.

[2] "Small town/rural" is an odds and ends category, and even though (as we'll see) the "region" as a whole votes Republican - there is significant variation from rural county to rural county. Southern Colorado has a sizeable Hispanic population and can generally be expected to support Democrats. Eastern Colorado, where the best farmland in the state is located, is solidly Republican.

[3] The Census Bureau identifies ten counties in metropolitan Denver, including recently created Broomfield County. In 2004, Bush won Arapahoe, Broomfield, Elbert, Jefferson, Park, and Douglas counties. Kerry won Adams, Clear Creek, Gilpin, and Denver counties. The only county to switch from 2000 to 2004 (excluding Broomfield, which did not exist at the time) was tiny Clear Creek County (population 8,956). It went for Bush in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. Overall, metropolitan Denver was essentially unchanged from 2000 to 2004 in terms of its absolute vote. It gave Bush 46.8% in 2000 and 47.8% in 2004. Kerry improved over Gore in part because Ralph Nader's role was greatly diminished.

[4] The less populous cities were more diverse to begin with, and they remain so today, as this chart makes clear. Note in particular the movement of Fort Collins, which has gone from being solidly Republican to a swing area. For the sake of brevity, we'll place the data on the less populous cities in the endnotes. However, this should not be taken to imply that they are not important. In fact, metro Fort Collins, metro Greeley, and metro Boulder are all about the same size, ranging from about 250,000 to 300,000 people. Pueblo and Grand Junction are less populous, with about 150,00 people each.

[5] An examination of the other parts of the state shows that Kennedy also improved on Gordon and Kerry in Greeley, Fort Collins, Pueblo, and Grand Junction. See here for the relevant chart. See here for the 2004 presidential map, here for the 2006 Secretary of State map, and here for the 2006 State Treasurer map.

[6] As everybody knows, Denver has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. What is less remarked upon, however, is that the rest of the state has kept up.

This has had an important political consequence. Though Denver has grown, its voting power relative to the rest of the state has remained roughly constant. The following chart illustrates this point.

Share of Statewide Presidential Vote 1.jpg

When we combine this with the fact that metropolitan Denver sits roughly in the middle of the state and the country - we find another reason why Colorado is a swing state. Denver is relatively moderate, and it is not so large that it has "hegemonic" power over the rest of the state. [As this chart makes clear, the net change in voting power in the rest of the state has been roughly zero.]

[7] See here for changes in the Hispanic composition of the rest of the state.

-Jay Cost