ANALYSIS: Road to White House May Run Through Rural Colorado

November 1, 2012

Rural counties may be the key to winning Colorado’s nine electoral votes (Capitol City Blog Image)

DENVER – As the presidential campaigns race toward what polls suggest will be a photo finish, a handful of counties in a handful of swing states will determine whether it is Mitt Romney or Barack Obama who takes the presidential oath of office next year.

One of the states where this county-specific, micro-targeted, battle for the White House will play out is in Colorado, a state which – along with Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and a few others – will decide the outcome of the election.

Much of the political handicapping in Colorado this year has focused on the swing counties of Jefferson and Arapahoe. These counties (along with Larimer County, which has played an outsized role in recent contests) will undoubtedly be the most coveted prizes in November.  And that’s nothing new.

George W. Bush won the three key counties in 2000 and 2004, and President Obama won each by wide margins in 2008.  Both men went on to win Colorado’s electoral votes and the White House.

Narrowing Margins

While these three bellwether counties have been accurate predictors of the outcome in recent presidential races, they have become far more competitive than in years past.

As a result, candidates have been unable to ride comfortable margins in these populous suburban counties to statewide victory – forcing them to look elsewhere in the state to either run up the statewide score, or offset their deficit in these “Big Three” counties.

In 2010, for example, a non-presidential year, Democrat U.S. Senator Michael Bennet defeated his GOP rival Ken Buck in Jefferson, Arapahoe and Larimer Counties, but by slim margins. Ultimately, Bennet scored a narrow 30,000 vote statewide victory – a victory buoyed in large part by Mr. Bennet’ crushing victories in heavily Democratic counties like Boulder and Denver, where he defeated Mr. Buck by a combined total of more than 100,000 votes.

In 2004, John Kerry fared respectably in Jefferson County and Arapahoe County against George W. Bush – the strongest showing by a Democratic presidential candidate in the two counties since 1964. But Kerry lost the state to George W. Bush by more than 100,000 votes – in the same year that then-Senator Ken Salazar, a Democrat, defeated well-known Republican beer magnate Pete Coors by a similar margin.

Salazar too fared well in the “Big Three” counties, but he also successfully worked for votes in more traditionally Republican territory, particularly rural areas. Salazar’s efforts in these lower-profile, rural counties was one key reason that Salazar was able to succeed in 2004 where Kerry failed.

“Salazar lost most [rural Colorado counties], but he held down the GOP’s winning margins much more effectively there than Kerry did,” wrote Ronald Brownstein of National Journal. “Salazar finished at least 10 percentage points higher than Kerry in 18 small rural counties, most of them along the state’s eastern border or along the Western Slope…and at least 5 percentage points higher in most of the other rural counties.”

Running up the Score

To win Colorado, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama must do more than just win over undecided and independent voters in the battleground counties of Arapahoe, Jefferson and Larimer – although they must certainly do that.  But it is important to remember that these counties are essentially evenly divided battlegrounds, meaning neither candidate will likely win by a large enough margins there to guarantee a statewide victory.

That means each campaign must work hard to “run up the score” in four of the most heavily populated – and heavily partisan – counties in the state.  For the Obama campaign, that means expanding the margin of victory in liberal Denver and Boulder Counties. For the Romney campaign, it means winning big in conservative Douglas and El Paso Counties.

In a sign of how close the race in Colorado is, the turnout in both of these base counties is virtually even. Ballots returned as of October 30 in Denver and Boulder number is 164,259, while 171,120 ballots have been returned in Douglas and El Paso.  That represents a flip from where turnout was four years ago, when ballots cast in Boulder and Denver on Election Day outnumbered those cast in El Paso and Douglas by approximately 23,000.  If this erosion in Denver/Boulder performance extends through Election Day for Obama, it will be a major barrier to him carrying the state again.

Rural Counties Key? Weld, Mesa and Pueblo

In rural battleground counties across the country, recent polling has Romney racking up large margins.  Earlier this month a bipartisan poll of rural voters in swing states showed Romney taking that segment 59-37 over Obama, a plunge of ten points for the president from Obama’s 2008 showing, according to NPR.

That poll of rural voters included people from Colorado, where rural populations have been hit especially hard from the recession, potentially contributing to Obama’s softening support in the small towns and cities outside the Denver Metro area. As The Colorado Observer reported last month, seven mostly-rural counties in Colorado had real unemployment reaching or surpassing 20%.

While some of the counties in more rural areas have less than 1000 registered voters, there are a number of counties with large rural populations that can have an outsized impact on statewide races. For example, the combined votes from Mesa, Weld and Pueblo counties accounted for slightly more than 10% of all ballots cast in the 2008 election.

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