Standing in front of thousands of Mitt Romney supporters crammed into the gymnasium at Lakewood High School, Paul Ryan told a cheering crowd just how much he loves the Rocky Mountains.
"There's nothing like the stars and the skies and the Colorado Rockies at night," said Ryan, just three days after Romney had named the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman as the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket.
But Ryan's passion for the state's fourteeners was not the reason that one of his first big rallies was slated for Jefferson County.
"People here in Jeffco are gonna have a huge opportunity, but you also have a big responsibility," Ryan said, earning loud applause. "Because in counties like this, in states like this, you will determine the future of our country. It's just that clear."
And he's right.
Ryan was repeating a refrain that has become common at local rallies for both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. With Election Day just over two months away, the evidence of Colorado's importance in the national race is everywhere, from the millions of dollars both campaigns and supporting super-PACs are pouring into television advertisements across the state to the weekly traffic jams and road closures caused by the candidates' increasingly frequent visits. Colorado — alongside Ohio, Virginia, Florida (site of the Republican National Convention) and several other toss-ups — continues to make national news as one of the key battleground states.
And as the fight for Colorado's voters — and nine electoral votes — wages on, polls, political pundits and local party leaders seem to agree on just one thing: Whether this state's purple mountain majesties turn red or blue in November could determine the next president of the United States.
The reason for Colorado's importance as a swing state is quite simple: The largest group of voters isn't tied to either of the two major parties. This state is more purple than it is red or blue. More voters in Colorado are registered as unaffiliated than as Democrats or Republicans, and these are exactly the voters that both campaigns are vigorously targeting. Based on the most recent data from the Colorado Secretary of State's office, as of July there were 3,456,191 registered voters in the state, of which 1,206,035 were unaffiliated, 1,093,025 were Democrats and 1,124,158 were Republicans.
Although the numbers are larger, the proportions are almost unchanged from 2008, when Colorado went blue for Obama after voting red in every presidential election since 1968 — except for 1992, when Colorado chose Bill Clinton. In November 2008, the Democratic and Republican parties each had about a million registered voters in this state, with slightly more than a million officially unaffiliated. And on Election Day, 1,288,633 Coloradans cast their vote for Obama and 1,073,629 went for John McCain — meaning just a little over 200,000 votes made the difference in this key state.
CNN exit polls from 2008 show that unaffiliated voters helped Obama quite a bit in Colorado, with 54 percent voting for the Democrat and 44 percent going for McCain. As November nears, more and more polls and forecasts predict that the race in Colorado will be just as tight, if not tighter. And it's a race that really matters.
Doug Usher, managing director of research at Purple Strategies, a bipartisan public-affairs firm that focuses exclusively on key battleground states, says that these critical swing states are the ones candidates need to secure in order to have a shot at reaching 270 electoral votes. In a July report from Purple Strategies, Obama has a slight edge in Colorado, at 45 percent to 44 percent.
And the latest data from Real Clear Politics, which averages major polls in the race, shows that Obama, across the board, has just a single-percentage-point edge over the Republican candidate.
"The polling has very consistently predicted a very close race," says Seth Masket, associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. "And I would imagine that the candidate that carries Colorado will also carry the nation."
A report released last week by the University of Colorado shows that Mitt Romney is likely to win most key swing states like Colorado and ultimately become the next president. This forecast, based on state-specific electoral-college predictions tied to economic conditions, found that Romney will receive 51.9 percent of the vote to Obama's 48.1 percent in Colorado, in large part due to the still struggling economy.
Underscoring the razor-thin nature of the race, Ken Bickers, a CU professor of political science who co-authored the study, says that Colorado is so close it actually falls within his study's margin of error. "It wouldn't take much of a shift in the vote to push Colorado from one column into a different column," he says.
And poll after poll indicates just how tight the race is here. "It confirms why we are getting inundated with so many television and radio ads and why the campaigns are spending so much time paying attention to Colorado," Bickers notes.
Colorado may have just nine electoral-college votes — less than 2 percent of the nation's total — but those nine votes could be critical if a candidate is going to hit the required 270.
To understand just how significant Colorado is in this election, follow the money.
Both presidential campaigns, along with other super-PACs and interest groups, had spent a total of a whopping $22.8 million on TV ads that hit the Colorado airwaves by August 19, according to the latest available data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which partners with the Washington Post to track spending in the federal race. That's around $2.5 million per electoral college vote in Colorado and accounts for nearly 6 percent of the total $381.2 million that has been spent across the country so far this election cycle.
"They're spending a lot in Colorado because it matters, and it could matter a lot in the end," says Bickers.
And they're spending more per electoral vote in Colorado than they are in some other swing states. For example, in Virginia total spending so far is at $21,641,950, which amounts to about $1.7 million for each of that state's thirteen electoral-college votes.
"Anybody watching the political scene would observe that the Denver metro area has been inundated with political advertising," says Don Ytterberg, chairman of the Jefferson County GOP. "These are the types of media purchases you might expect to see in September.... I think it's unprecedented to have this much focus this early in the campaigning."
Outside of the airwaves, both campaigns have a major physical presence in Colorado. Obama has been to Colorado ten times since the start of his presidency, including seven visits this year (the summer's devastating wildfires and the Aurora theater shooting accounted for two of those). Romney has visited Colorado sixteen times since last summer.
The Obama campaign has also rolled out numerous surrogates and celebrities, including Eva Longoria and the stars of Harold and Kumar.
Obama has maintained a presence in Colorado since 2008, when the Democratic National Convention was held in Denver. And the re-election campaign, which officially launched in April, has been rolling out new offices on a regular basis throughout the summer. Obama currently has 53 campaign offices scattered across the state. "We are confident, but we are taking nothing for granted," says John Buckley, chairman of the Democratic Party in Arapahoe County. "We are actively campaigning in every single district, every single precinct."
Only fourteen official "Romney Victory" offices have opened in Colorado, but Ellie Wallace, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman in Colorado, says the numbers don't tell the whole story. "We will match them voter contact for voter contact and we'll out-work them on the ground," she says in a statement. "RNC/Romney for President will be active in every county, town and community in Colorado to make sure we elect Romney/Ryan and the GOP ticket."
And Ryan Call, state GOP chairman, actually sees Obama's abundant offices as a negative. "The Republican Party is being a lot more efficient with our operations," he says, then adds, "The [Obama] campaign has been spending...a significant amount of resources to hold on desperately to a lead that is eroding.
"From a tactical perspective," he continues, "This is a campaign that is going to be won or lost based on our ability to connect with individual voters."
And that means the Republicans will be on the ground, directly appealing to undecided voters and any Democrats who might be on the fence. Call recognizes that's a difficult task, but also a crucial one. "The need to be able to win over independents and even the occasional thoughtful Democrat is a challenge for any campaign," he says.
The presidential campaigns aren't just pouring money and resources into Colorado. They are targeting "swing counties," whose large percentage of unaffiliated voters could ultimately decide the outcome of the race in Colorado — and so the country. Jefferson, Arapahoe and Larimer counties are often cited as the most crucial counties, since they contain major portions of the suburban areas where about a third of the voters are unaffiliated.
As of July, there were a total of 347,199 registered unaffiliated voters across these three counties, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all unaffiliated voters in the state. The three counties went to Obama in 2008 and were an important part of turning Colorado blue, experts say.
According to Dick Keil, a communications strategist with Purple Strategies, Arapahoe was ground zero in 2008, because it had the perfect mix of suburban and more recently urbanized areas, so that the breakdown was very evenly split between Obama and McCain supporters. "You have a county that mirrors the demographic trends defining how the battle is going to be fought nationally," he says. "If you're a campaign planner, that's the perfect storm."
"As Arapahoe County goes, so goes the nation," says Buckley, Democratic Party chairman in that county, who says he regularly gets calls from national media — something he didn't anticipate when he signed up for the job. "The eyes of the country are on Arapahoe."
And Jefferson County, where the Romney campaign opened its Colorado headquarters in Lakewood in June, hosted separate rallies for Ryan and Romney this month.
Whether or not these counties actually determine the race, they're being used as bellwethers to predict outcomes on a national level.
Buckley says that his local party's work for Obama involves targeting unaffiliated voters and Republican women through voter databases. "There's no question that it's part of our strategy to reach out to Republican women who may feel like the Republican Party has left them behind," he notes.
But Jeffco GOP chairman Ytterberg says he is seeing more and more unaffiliated and undecided voters at Republican rallies, which signals to him that "Colorado will go red. I think we will deliver nine [votes] for the Republican Party, and that just may be what's necessary to win the White House."
Both campaigns have been pushing the women's vote with events in these swing counties. The CNN exit polls from 2008 show that 56 percent of Colorado females voted for Obama while 41 percent voted for McCain.
Delia Ciano, 52, who lives in Bailey, is just the kind of candidate both campaigns are trying to court. She was a lifelong Republican until the last election, when her daughter convinced her to vote for Obama, in part because of proposed threats to Planned Parenthood. "I feel like we have so much to lose, as a woman," says Ciano, who now volunteers with the Obama campaign. "I talk to my Republican friends and family and ask them, 'Why, as a woman, are you voting Republican?'"
She hopes some of the women she talks to will cast their vote for Obama — and their husbands don't have to know. "If I can speak to one woman...that person can go and talk to her girlfriend and that girlfriend speaks to her mother.... One person can make a big difference," she says. "Our president needs us to support him."
Nissa Szabo, a 23-year-old volunteer for the Romney campaign who lives in Arvada, part of Jefferson County, says that concerns about the economy trump questions of birth control that the other side often raises when trying to court female voters. "Obama has not lived up to his promises to my generation or to women in general," she explains. "People are still looking for jobs, and that's really disheartening."
Call says that Democrats are misrepresenting the GOP's position. "The Democratic Party's approach to tackling this issue has been fundamentally dishonest," he says. "We also think voters in Colorado, especially women voters, are a whole lot smarter than the Democrats...give them credit for."
Mike Fassi, chairman of the GOP in Larimer County, says he's focusing on sending a message of Obama's failed economy, asking his county's residents, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
It's important, he says, to remind residents that their votes in this election could make a difference on a national scale."The people of our county recognize that if Larimer County does not deliver, it will affect not only this generation, but three or four generations to come," he notes. "They understand the ramifications of this election."
The importance of the key counties and Colorado as a whole in this election was not lost on Paul Ryan when he made his first visit to Jefferson County as a vice-presidential candidate. But his visit to Colorado was not all about politics, he revealed at the start of his speech.
"It's great to be here in Colorado," he said. "I was actually planning on being here in Colorado this week..."
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"Yeah!" someone in the audience interrupted.
"...only on our family vacation," Ryan continued, scoring laughs from the audience. "You see, my family is over in one of our great national forests here in Colorado while we speak. We come here every summer. I've been climbing fourteeners for over twenty years here in this great state."
After the applause died down, he continued: "I have such great memories of jumping in our family station wagon...and enjoying the beautiful Rocky Mountains you have here.... This is one of the most beautiful states in the country."
And it's also one that just might determine the next president of the United States.