Colorado’s importance in the presidential race can be measured in time: President Barack Obama will campaign there twice and Mitt Romney at least once in the final days before the Nov. 6 election.
An aggregation of recent polls shows the race tied, meaning any small movement in the electorate could shape the outcome.
“It most definitely is as close a race as you can imagine,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University. “If this is as close as we think it is, that margin could be affected by a third-party candidate.”
The race is so tight that the presence of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor from neighboring New Mexico, and his support for legalizing marijuana in the state, could siphon off enough to tip the state’s nine electoral votes to either candidate.
As a Libertarian dedicated to less federal spending and government power, Johnson could take votes from Romney. Yet he’s antiwar and favors easing marijuana restrictions, which is also on the ballot, and that could hurt Obama’s totals.
“We have a natural fit with Colorado,” Johnson, 59, said in an interview. “I embrace the notion of being a spoiler. The two-party system is outdated. Politics right now is very status quo. It’s really like a non-choice.”
A CNN/ORC International poll of likely voters released yesterday showed Obama with a slim lead over Romney of 50 percent to 48 percent. The survey was taken Oct. 26-31 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
When Johnson and other third-party candidates were included in the questioning, Johnson received support from 4 percent, and Obama’s advantage over Romney dropped to 48 percent to 47 percent.
Adding more uncertainty is the ballot initiative that would give Colorado the nation’s most liberal marijuana law. The proposal to legalize possession of as much as one ounce of the drug for recreational use by adults 21 and older appeals to younger voters, a constituency that strongly backed Obama four years ago that is more disillusioned now.
“If that attracts more people to the polls, that will probably benefit Barack Obama,” said Peter Hanson, a political science professor at the University of Denver who once worked for former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. Still, some of those young Democratic-leaning voters may opt for Johnson instead of Obama.
“In some states, I take more votes from Obama and in some I take more from Romney,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who has supported legalizing marijuana since 1999, said the effort to allow some legal use of the drug is helping his candidacy in Colorado.
The marijuana proposal had a narrow lead in a SurveyUSA poll for the Denver Post taken Oct. 9-10, with 48 percent of likely voters supporting it and 43 percent opposed. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
The Libertarian Party was founded in a Colorado Springs living room more than four decades ago and Saunders said the party’s candidates tend to have a stronger appeal in western states. Libertarians are sometimes drawn to the Republican Party’s less-government philosophy.
Obama, 51, stands to benefit from the state’s growing Hispanic population. The population is 21 percent Hispanic, census data shows.
A Pew Hispanic Center national poll released Oct. 11 showed registered Hispanic voters support Obama over Romney 69 percent to 21 percent. That margin is wider than in 2008, when Obama received 67 percent of the Hispanic vote compared with 31 percent for the Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain.
At the same time, Hispanics this year appear less motivated than the general population to go to the polls. The Pew survey showed 77 percent said they were “absolutely certain” to vote, compared with 89 percent of all registered voters.
Romney’s suggestion during the primary campaign that undocumented immigrants “self-deport,” and Obama’s announcement in June that the U.S. would no longer deport undocumented residents brought to the country as children also help the incumbent with Hispanics.
Obama and Romney are appealing to Hispanics with Spanish-language advertisements. In the past 30 days in Colorado, there were 12 such ads, including five sponsored by Romney and the Republican National Committee, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG. Crossroads GPS and the American Future Fund, outside groups assisting Romney, also paid for Spanish advertising. The rest were by Obama and Democratic supporters, including the Service Employees International Union.
The suburbs around the Denver area also are expected to play a critical role in picking the winner.
The CNN poll shows Obama beating Romney by almost 2 to 1 in the state’s two largest urban Democratic strongholds, Denver and Boulder. In the Denver suburbs, Obama’s support drops, although he still holds a 53 percent to 45 percent advantage over Romney. The former Massachusetts governor leads 55 percent to 43 percent outside the Denver area.
Both Saunders and Hanson pointed to the suburban Denver counties of Arapahoe and Jefferson as being the key swing areas in the state where Obama and Romney both need to do well if they are to carry Colorado.
The state’s status as a battleground is relatively new. With the exception of 1964 and 1992, Republican presidential candidates had carried the state in every election since 1950, before Obama won it by 8.6 percentage points in 2008 after holding his party’s national nominating convention that year in Denver.
The state’s unemployment rate of 8 percent in September was just above the national rate of 7.8 percent that month.
The importance and closeness of the race in Colorado was on display earlier this week when Bill Clinton arrived in the Denver area. The former president is a top surrogate for the current president, so how he is deployed is telling about where the Obama campaign feels the need to shore up support.
Obama visited the state yesterday as part of a three-state swing and he’s scheduled to return on Nov. 4.
Romney’s campaign stops in the state this year were mostly in areas dominated by Republicans. Last week, he turned his attention to suburban Denver voters with a rally that drew more than 10,000 supporters to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado.
Romney, 65, is scheduled to return to the state again this weekend for an event at the Comfort Dental Amphitheatre, an 18,000-seat venue that is the largest outdoor amphitheater in the Denver metropolitan area. He’ll also stop in Colorado Springs.
Colorado is one of the few swing states where Romney has led in early voting. With the equivalent of 47.5 percent of the total 2008 vote already recorded this year through Oct. 31, Republicans have cast 38.2 percent of the ballots, compared with 35.2 percent for Democrats and 25.6 percent for independent voters, according to the secretary of state’s office there.
Another reason for Romney optimism is the advantage Republicans have among active registered voters. Republicans have the most registered at 912,456, followed by 882,063 unaffiliated voters and 871,712 Democrats, according to the secretary of state’s office.