Seminal Election, Centennial Race: The General Election Begins and Ends in Colorado

Move over, Ohio and Florida. As John McCain and Barack Obama plan stops in Colorado next week, it’s clear that nine little electoral votes out West will hold the keys to the door of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Long decreed a “purple” state by optimistic Democrats who’ve seen the area trending bluewards -- John Kerry’s 47 percent tally and one million votes in 2004, Bill Ritter and Ken Salazar’s convincing wins in the national spotlight, both state houses returning to Democratic control after forty 40 years -- our nine electoral votes have of late been viewed as a pick-up of moral rather than essential support. If a presidential candidate could carry Colorado, Dem leaders thought, it would send a strong message that the party was reclaiming lost ground in the West, capitalizing on growing urban populations that often trend younger and are increasingly diverse, while retooling its “Western Democrat” image -- socially and economically moderate, deeply concerned with conservation, energy and environmental issues.

With Obama the likely standard-bearer, however, Dems need more than moral victories out West, as his unique strengths and weaknesses demand a drastic restructuring of the national electoral map and a new coalition of states to reach the 270 vote Valhalla.

As Obama continues to struggle in two traditionally critical contests, Ohio and Florida, Colorado finds itself the fulcrum of the general election campaign. Mid-May Quinnipiac and Rasmussen polls show Obama running 1-4 points behind McCain in Ohio and 4-10 points back in Florida, highlighting his difficulties wooing blue-collar workers and Hispanic voters. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, runs ahead of McCain in both contests, averaging a 7-point lead.

If Obama carries all of the states Kerry won in 2004, which is no certainty but looks readily achievable, and supposing that Obama fails to make inroads in Ohio and Florida, Democrats must look West to a coalition of medium-sized electoral hauls to offset the losses. The scenario most discussed within the campaign and most likely on the map is Obama carrying Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, a balancing act wherein he could lose Ohio and Florida and still defeat McCain. It’s no small task, considering McCain’s popularity with independent and Western voters and the proximity of his home state of Arizona, but Obama’s similar draw with independent voters and his highly successful grassroots organization, keenly displayed during his 67-32 fustification of Hillary Clinton in Colorado’s Super Tuesday caucuses, puts all states in play.

Of the three, New Mexico is the bluest best-bet of the bunch, swinging to Bill Clinton twice and Al Gore in 2000 before George Bush carried the state in 2004 by less than 6,000 votes. Here Obama can expect to benefit from the endorsement of popular governor, former presidential candidate and vocal supporter Bill Richardson to put him over the top. Nevada saw an enormous increase in Democratic turnout, reportedly over ten times the numbers seen in 2004, stemming from its inclusion in the “first four” primaries and caucuses of the new Democratic National Committee strategy to broaden the geographic and electoral diversity of the early election-year calendar. Obama lost its caucus to Hillary Clinton but was able to galvanize enough support outside of Las Vegas to gain more delegates than Clinton. A May 22 Rasmussen poll in the Silver State puts him six points back of McCain.

In the Western state salvation triptych, however, Colorado is the lynchpin. Colorado’s nine electors are nearly double those found in Nevada (5) and New Mexico (5), and its cross-sectional demographics epitomize the grandest goals of the cross-aisle, 50-state strategy espoused by Obama and DNC chairman Howard Dean. With the added lift of the convention in Denver, it remains the responsibility of national Democratic organizers to ensure that the party platform resonates not only with the voters of Colorado but with the greater West.

McCain stops by Aurora and gives a speech on his foreign policy at the University of Denver on Tuesday, after visiting twice in recent months, including a few weeks ago.He has to be eying Obama’s six-point lead in the May 21 Rasmussen poll in a state that’s gone Democratic only three times since World War II (Dewey Defeats Truman in ’48, LBJ in ’64, Clinton in ’92).

Obama’s visit to in Denver next on Wednesday continues his polite look-ahead tour while Clinton still hangs in the race; it should be the first of many general election trips as he rallies Colorado voters and picks up some Centennial State shwag before taking the Pepsi Center stage in August. -- Joe Horton