Colorado at a Crossroads |

Colorado at a Crossroads

Nathan Rodriguez
photo illustration by Amanda Swanson

The madness is almost over.

Robo-calls and pollsters, indy voters and undecideds, yard signs, bumper stickers, swing states and Joe the Plumber ” all vanish overnight next week in what nearly everyone trumpets as the most important election in a generation.

Senators McCain and Obama, and their spouses and running mates, all visited Colorado in recent weeks to energize supporters in the home stretch of the election. But at the time of this writing, Colorado is sliding from a toss-up to a light-blue state on many electoral maps, most notably on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend.

Despite daytime drive-by appearances from members of both campaigns, CNN’s John King reported top McCain aides said they must find a way to “make the math work without Colorado.”

Subsequent reports from other sources confirmed this, and the McCain campaign has shifted precious advertising resources to other key states, including Pennsylvania.

Last Sunday, Dan Balz of the Washington Post argued Colorado is a “case study of the balance of power” between the two candidates, with Obama enjoying a substantial financial advantage and impressive ground game with legions of volunteers and paid staffers, while McCain faces an uphill grind by nearly any measure, the most recent of which came from the Rocky Mountain News and showed him lagging 12 points behind Obama.

A few questions linger, then, in the remaining hours before Election Day: Is Obama’s ground game really that good, and what difference could it make? And given that political pundits and pollsters were proven wrong so many times this primary season ” with voters relegating Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton to the sidelines ” are polls and projections even accurate anymore? Is Colorado really light blue?

Life in a battleground state is a gift and a curse as it’s next to impossible to turn on a radio or television or pick up a paper or magazine without enduring a barrage of pandering and posturing on every local, state and national issue imaginable.

At this stage of the game, messages from floundering campaigns become more vitriolic and scattered, while frontrunners tiptoe to the safety of the finish line.

For those with a passive interest in politics, this constant drone can register pretty high on the “annoying” scale, somewhere between hearing Gilbert Gottfried’s voice and fingernails on a chalkboard.

But for serious political junkies, battleground states are God’s Country.

“It’s exciting. It makes the campaign that much more interesting and that much more work, but it’s been fun and a challenge,” said Randy Milhoan, chair of the Eagle County Republicans. “It’s interesting to be in a state that may be the deciding factor. It could come down to Colorado, and it could even boil down to the rural regions of Colorado, and we’ve never been a part of it before.”

Carole Onderdonk, co-chair of the Eagle County Democratic Party, was similarly thrilled to be involved in a tight race.

“It makes it pretty exciting because we get to see all the candidates here more than once, and not just to raise money, but to talk to people,” she said, adding Eagle County’s predominantly unaffiliated voting population compounded interest in the election.

And attention paid to the presidential race has meant more people are involved in the all-important “ground game,” said Debbie Marquez of the Eagle County Democratic Party, who noted the local scene was unlike any other she’d witnessed.

“We’ve never seen this many people so energized, excited and inspired by a candidate to work as hard as people have been doing,” she said. “They’re putting in the hours for the get-out-the-vote effort that’s never been seen in Eagle County, and that’s only accomplished with volunteers who are ready to work for change in our country.”

Onderdonk said voter registration efforts in Eagle County succeeded “beyond our best dreams,” and a strong Democratic turnout could be the linchpin for Obama to win the state’s nine electoral votes.

“The important thing in Eagle County is to win by as large a plurality as we can to counteract votes in the Colorado Springs area and other bastions of conservatism,” she said. “We have several Front Range counties with higher populations, but we need to get out every single Obama voter we can find.”

On the Republican side, Milhoan expressed gratitude for a core of volunteers, but sounded less than confident about his party’s chances next week.

“It’s going to be hard for us to win, but things are tough for Republicans everywhere else,” he said. “Our goal is to win as many seats as we can, from the county commissioner race to the presidential race and everything in between, and we’re working really diligently on it.”

Milhoan said shifting demographics and voter registration drives have placed Republicans at a disadvantage.

“The Democrats may have a new advantage in immigrants and newly registered Democrats including felons and so forth,” he said. “I don’t mean to be flip about that, but some of the statistics and investigations I’ve heard are troubling. … I think the landscape of the West has been changing for a while, with more people moving in from the East Coast and California, who bring their own ideas on what politics should be like.”

From this vantage point it appears Obama’s ground game in Colorado has lived up to the hype, with ardent McCain backers ratcheting down expectations.

And if Balz was right ” that Colorado is a case study for battleground states ” a few more toss-up states may follow the light-blue trend, with the ground game tipping the electoral scales in the 11th hour.

Mark Twain famously said there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The McCain campaign is keeping its collective fingers crossed that polling data falls into one of those categories.

John McCain appeared on “Meet the Press” last weekend, and spent about a third of his time fending off poll numbers hurled by Tom Brokaw. He argued polls always show him further behind than he actually is; the numbers are “all over the map,” and the election hinges on voter turnout.

And he may have a point, said Joe Lenski, co-founder of Edison Media Research, which conducts exit polls and election projections for the Associated Press, CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS.

“The one thing that makes this election tricky to predict is that it looks like voter turnout will be higher,” he said. “Polls are based on predictive models of who will or will not vote, so the numbers used may not be accurate. We saw big spikes in voter registration and turnout for primaries in many states, and that’s why so many pre-election polls weren’t as accurate.”

Denver-based political analyst Floyd Ciruli agreed the election was more difficult to project because of questions on voter turnout.

“The pollsters are struggling this year because it appears there will be an expanded electorate with a lot of new voters, so there’s more variability in surveys,” he said. “We’re dealing with an electorate that looks different, so it’s hard to use the old models because there are simply a lot of new voters in the system. We’re expecting a record turnout of African-Americans, historic turnouts of people under 30, as well as a massive Hispanic vote, and many of these groups are tough to survey.”

Voter turnout on Election Day is just one variable that makes the political prediction business an inexact science. Early voting, cell phones and the “Bradley effect” are three other curve balls that could shake things up a bit.

“The big issue in Colorado is what looks like continuing growth in early voters,” Lenski said. “It could be that over half the votes are cast by Election Day, and that makes things tricky for any pollster, because it adds to the questions you need to ask. The typical question is who someone would vote for if the election was held today, but if you’re asking a week after someone already mailed in a ballot, it means something else.”

According to David Flaherty of Magellan Data, nearly 25 percent of registered Republicans and Democrats in Colorado and about 15 percent of unaffiliated voters in Colorado had already voted as of Oct. 24. Early reports in most states find early voters favoring Obama by roughly a 60 – 40 margin.

Lenski added that opening voting precincts earlier has made campaigning more interesting, because candidates no longer flock to key states on Election Day, but make the rounds to battleground states that have started early voting.

The next variable in the polling mix are voters who don’t have land lines, which, according to the experts, could make the difference of a couple valuable percentage points.

Lenski said his research from 2004 showed 6 percent of voters didn’t have a land line, and this year should triple that mark, with 15 to 20 percent of active voters who only own a cell phone, and may not be included in many polling surveys.

“On the national level, several polls include cell phone users, like The New York Times, Gallup, and most Pew (Research) polls,” he said, arguing polls which excluded cell-only voters would miss the mark. “This year, for the 18- to 29-year-old voting bloc, it may be 30 percent or more (who only own a cell phone).”

Lenski and Ciruli both said this was significant because in previous elections, cell-only voters generally followed the same voting patterns as the rest of the population. The most recent evidence suggests that won’t be the case this year.

“We used to have this theory that you could figure out the cell-only voters by using the land line figures,” Ciruli said. “We’re finding that’s not going to get it done this time, because you’re underestimating the Obama vote by a percentage point or two.”

The final factor is the so-called “Bradley effect,” named for the 1982 California governor’s race in which voting booth racism was blamed for Tom Bradley’s loss.

Most political commentators have laid this argument to rest in recent weeks, including Bradley’s own pollster, who said race wasn’t a factor in Bradley’s defeat, which instead came from flawed polling methods that excluded a good chunk of the rural vote. American culture has also changed a great deal since the early ’80s, a time when some people openly and casually questioned the logic of starting a black quarterback in the NFL. The most convincing argument was the Democratic primary race, which actually found Obama getting more votes than polls projected ” a sort of reverse Bradley effect.

“In general, what you see is what you’re going to get,” Ciruli said. “There’s no secret racial vote, and most polls aren’t off much beyond the margin of error … Colorado seems to be following the national trend, where Obama’s up by about five points, and beyond the margin of error. Obviously McCain’s not giving up, but Obama’s gaining momentum here just as he is nationally.”

So despite uncertainty swirling around the ground game, new voters, early voting, cell phones and latent racism, mainstream media outlets seem justified in converting Colorado from a toss-up battleground state to one that favors the Democrats. More strikingly, it appears that if the polls are inaccurate, it’s because they underestimate Obama’s support.

And if Colorado is a model for other battleground states in terms of voter canvassing and advertising resources ” which, absent some external catalyzing event, are the only potential game-changers left ” what seemed like a nail-biter just a few weeks ago could turn into an electoral landslide.

Nathan Rodriguez may be reached at

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