Highway 270: Colorado

This article is part of an ongoing biweekly series called “Highway 270,” which profiles heavily contested states in the 2012 election season. This week, I will examine the current political climate in Colorado, which has 9 electoral votes.

In 2008, Barack Obama sailed to an easy, 9-point victory in Colorado, but a win there in 2012 will not be so easily won. The state appears to be in the midst of an overall trend towards liberalization—once a Republican stronghold, its two senators are now both Democratic, as is its governor, John Hickenlooper—but such trends are usually precarious, and a strong showing for Romney in 2012 could reverse, perhaps permanently, the mission creep of Colorado liberalism.

Colorado makes for an interesting microcosm of the nation as a whole—its median voter rather than its extremist blocs—in that its voters tend to be amongst the most politically moderate in the United States. This is one state in which the centrist policies advocated by Romney-as-governor hold a real potential advantage. Romney-as-candidate, however, seems too concerned with driving away far-right voters to present himself as the moderate in the race. Forcing a more conservative bent on his politics was a necessity in the Republican primary, where his fellow candidates (chiefly Newt Gingrich) called Romney a “Massachusetts Moderate” as if centrist politics were anathema to the American voter.

But they aren’t. If anything, the number of Americans who identify as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” has risen substantially in recent years—and this bloc of Americans rest firmly in the middle of the political spectrum, waiting for a candidate with whom they more closely identify. Colorado, perhaps more than any other state, is full of such voters. Romney needs to identify himself with conservative roots, undoubtedly, in order to persuade the rural, Southern backbone of the GOP to head out to the voting booth (as they always do), but in Colorado his campaign would do well to advocate for greater moderation.

Romney’s biggest hurdle in winning Colorado is an unusual one for a Republican candidate—comparatively weak funding. The Atlantic reported today that Romney’s Colorado television advertising budget is roughly half of Obama’s, that the Obama campaign have aired 1,800 more commercials than Romney’s, and that Obama boasts 59 Colorado-area campaign offices to Romney’s 13. Such a discrepancy simply cannot be compensated for without an increase in funding to Romney’s Colorado campaign. Even if Romney is operating on a maximized budget, he would do well to reappropriate funding from other states to Colorado, because if he can withstand Obama’s cash advantage, he really has a chance in the Centennial State.

This coming week would be a better time than any for a blitzkrieg of Romney advertisements, given his stellar performance in Wednesday’s Denver debate. If Romney loses that momentum, it’ll take another exceptional performance to regain it—an advantage that can by no means be taken for granted.

Obama’s greatest sources of support in Colorado are its increasing liberal population, the 21 percent of its population that identify as Hispanic, and the youth voters with whom he always polls well. He may get an additional advantage in the state when Colorado’s unemployment numbers are released—the national unemployment rate, announced today, fell to 7.8 percent, the lowest since 2009. Since Colorado’s unemployment rate has been above 8 percent in recent months, any decrease in that respect could be as helpful to Obama as it could detrimental to Romney—naturally, if joblessness appears to be decreasing, he’ll have a harder time making the argument that things are getting worse.

Colorado offers the rare opportunity for Mitt Romney to be himself, politically speaking—or at least, for him to more closely resemble the politician who governed a centrist Massachusetts in the 2000s. To do so would be a political risk—he might alienate his base in other states—but it comes with a large potential payoff: Colorado’s 9 electoral votes and the vote of a growing contingent of moderates throughout the country.