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By Jay Cost

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Swing State Review: Pennsylvania

Today we continue our Swing State Review with an examination of Colorado, a state that has gone from being a safely Republican state to a swing state.

The following chart makes this clear by examining the Republican "tilt" of Colorado against Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Republican tilt of each state is measured by the margin of victory (or defeat) for the Republican candidate in the state versus his national margin. So, if a state supports the Republican more than the country at large, it is said to have a Republican tilt.

Colorado Partisanship.jpg

Pennsylvania and Ohio are included because we have already reviewed both states. We noted in our Pennsylvania review that the Keystone State has had a slight, pro-Democratic tilt to it, which can be seen in this chart - not once in some fifty-six years has Pennsylvania voted more Republican than the country. We noted in our Ohio review that Ohio generally votes slightly more Republican than the nation at large, but its inclination to the GOP is slight enough that it remains a swing state. Again, we can see this trend in the chart - generally, Ohio is slightly partial to the Republican Party.

Now examine Colorado. It's pattern of behavior of the years has been much more erratic than Pennsylvania or Ohio. Plus, unlike either, its erratic behavior also has within it a subtle trend - movement from the Republican column to the middle. *

In other words, Colorado has been trending this direction for a while. For the last twenty years or so, it has generally found itself in the middle of the country.

Let's specify this observation by looking at the vote patterns in different parts of the state. We'll do that in the following manner. We'll take those metropolitan areas in Colorado that currently have more than 100,000 people living there and track how these geographical areas have changed over time. We'll classify the remaining counties in the state as "Small Town/Rural" and track those changes as well. **

We'll examine the four most populous areas first.

Colorado Partisanship 2.jpg

This is interesting. What we see is Colorado becoming increasingly polarized in its partisanship. In 1952, these four 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 a nearly 80 point difference among them. Colorado Springs has become more Republican, Boulder has become strongly Democratic, Denver slightly so, and the rural parts of the state are essentially unchanged. [The smaller cities were more diverse to begin with, and they remain so, as this chart indicates.]

We can thus get a sense of what has helped change Colorado to a swing state. In terms of its partisanship, it has become more diverse. This is an important precondition, one we saw in play in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Both parties now have sizeable bases of support upon which they can rely, and both now must compete for the areas in the middle. ***

A critically important reason for this change is the population growth of the state. At first blush, one might be inclined to think that the growth of Denver has been the cause of all the growth. This is not so. While Denver has grown, so also have all the parts of the state we've enumerated. Consider the following chart, which again reviews the four most populous parts of the state.

Percent Change in Population 1.jpg

Using 1980 as a baseline, we find that Denver is not the fastest-growing place in the state. Colorado Springs is. Of course, Denver was large to begin with - so its growth in absolute terms has by far been the greatest.**** Nevertheless, Denver's growth has not altered the balance between it and the rest of the state. In 1980, what is today metropolitan Denver accounted for about half of the state's population. Today, metro Denver still accounts for about half.

This has had an important political consequence. Though Denver has grown by leaps-and-bounds, 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

This chart indicates that, though the population has increased, it has not altered the existing balance between Denver and the rest of the state. 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 the state is a swing state. Denver is relatively moderate, and (unlike New York City or Chicago) is not so large that it has hegemonic power over the rest of the state.*****

The crucial phrase in the last paragraph is "at the moment." There are two factors that could alter Colorado's current swing status. Both favor the Democrats, at least in the short term.

First, Denver has roughly split down the middle in the last five presidential elections, voting as the whole country votes. However, 2004 saw Denver vote more in line with the Democrats than at any time since 1952. Is this simply an outlying point around a central tendency of moderation, or is it a signal that the city as a whole is moving more to the Democratic Party? It is too soon to say. If Denver retains its past behavior of generally voting as the country votes, we can expect Colorado as a whole to remain in the middle, too. However, if it begins to shift toward the Democrats, it could push Colorado from purple to blue. The city is large enough to do that.

Second, much of Colorado's increase in population has been due to an increase in the Hispanic population, which the following chart demonstrates.

Colorado Hispanic Population 1.jpg

Clearly, the Hispanic population has been increasing statewide. It has not been concentrated in Denver, though that is where its focus is.******

The electoral implications of this immigration have not yet 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.

When Hispanics in Colorado begin to vote in proportion to their numbers, the Democratic Party 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. The medium- and long-term are more difficult to forecast. Larger Hispanic turnout will alter the political landscape of the state - and it remains to be seen how other types of voters will react. After all, voting coalitions are dynamic. Migration can induce change - not just due to the participation of new voters, but also the response of those who were already voting.

Practically speaking, this means we can be much less certain about what Colorado will do this cycle than we can with Pennsylvania or Ohio. The latter two states have behaved pretty consistently statewide for the last fifty some years. Thus, it's a safe bet that they'll behave per our expectations this year. But Colorado is a different matter. It's a state in flux. It's moved from being a reliably Republican state to a swing state. And it remains to be seen whether it's time as a swing state is just a stop on the way to being a reliably Democratic state. Relatedly, the Hispanic population in the state should probably be understood as a kind of sleeping giant. When it finally awakens, we should expect important changes in the state's electoral behavior.

This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that Colorado selected its delegates to both party conventions by way of caucuses, which I take to be wholly useless in inferring anything about future electoral patterns. Neither party had any kind of "test run" in Colorado. So, not only do we know how Colorado's long-term trends will influence this cycle, we also are ignorant of the particular strengths or weaknesses Obama and McCain bring to the Centennial State.

Nevertheless, we might conclude with five things to watch for in Colorado on Election Day.

(1) Metropolitan Denver. Will the city's movement toward the Democratic Party taper off in 2008? If so, this will augur very well for Obama. Given the size of the the metropolitan area, it would be difficult for McCain to find votes to make up the difference. On the other hand, if Denver hold constant relative to 2004 - McCain will be advantaged.

(2) Hispanics. Watching Denver and watching Hispanics might amount to the same thing. If they begin to turn out in closer proportions to their numbers, we should see Denver tip toward Obama. But will they? If they do, will they go for Obama, who fared very poorly with Hispanics in the primaries? It's still too early to answer either question. Some polls show McCain doing about as well as Bush did with Hispanics in Colorado. Other polls indicate he may be doing worse.

(3) Rural and small town areas. Rural voters east of the Mississippi seemed particularly uninterested in Obama during the primaries, and there are probably reasons for him to be concerned about their support in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But out west is another matter. Obama did reasonably well with them in Oregon and New Mexico. Is that a sign he will do well with them in Colorado? If so, how well will he do?

(4) Boulder and Colorado Springs. These two towns could stand as symbols for the political polarization over the last fifty years. Boulder has trended leftward, Colorado Springs rightward. This year, the parties have nominated two candidates that claim to possess cross-partisan appeal. Do they? Honestly, I really doubt it. But if they do, we might see Boulder and Colorado Springs break their recent partisan patterns.

(5) Voter mobilization. Fred Barnes wrote a fantastic essay a few weeks back about the Democrats' superior voter mobilization operation in Colorado. A lot of partisans on both sides like to reduce voting outcomes strictly down to voter mobilization (perhaps as a way to explain why they lost - "The public didn't really oppose our guy. The other side just got more of their people out!"). I am not in that camp, personally - and I'd note that the scholarly research on this subject is exceedingly sparse. I think a superior GOTV operation can at best buy just a couple of points. But with the Republicans having such generic problems nationwide, and with the factors that have shifted Colorado to the middle still possibly shifting it now to the left, will a point or two be enough to tip the state to Obama's column?


[*] Focus on 1988 to the present. In 1988, Colorado voted precisely as the country as a whole did. In 1992, George Bush was only slightly favored there. In 1996 and 2000, the state was more partial to the GOP, but it settled back down in 2004, when it just slightly favored George W. Bush relative to the country at large. This spike from 1996-2000 might be partially ephemeral. In 2000, Colorado favored Ralph Nader more than the country as a whole, giving him 5.3% of the statewide vote (compared to Nader's 2.7% haul nationwide). Only five other states were more partial to Nader. The implication of this is that Nader's presence might have skewed the 2000 results ever-so-slightly, enough to make 2000 fit the pattern exhibited by 1988, 1992, and 2004.

[**] In order of population (as of the 2007 Census estimate), we have:
Denver/Aurora: 2.39 million
Rural/Small Town: 690,000
Colorado Springs: 600,000
Boulder: 280,000
Fort Collins: 280,000
Greeley: 240,000
Pueblo: 150,000
Grand Junction: 130,000

The definitions of these locations were derived from the Census Bureau's classification of counties into Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

[***] It is important not to overstate the extent to which Colorado has changed in recent years. While there have been changes, and these changes have been crucial to the current political dynamic in the state, it is also true that much has remained the same. To appreciate this, consider the following pictures of countywide voting patterns in the state.

Colorado Montage.jpg

These elections are separated by some 64 years, and yet the countywide voting patterns are extremely similar. So also are how those patterns aggregate into a statewide result. Not only did Bush and Wilkie win generally the same counties, their final vote totals were roughly the same, too!

[****] For changes in population in the rest of the state, see this chart.

[*****] As this chart makes clear, the net change in voting power in the rest of the state has been roughly zero. Fort Collins has increased its share of the vote, Pueblo has decreased, and Greeley and Grand Junction remain unchanged.

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