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.