Bianchi: Is Colorado still a swing state?

Author: Chris Bianchi - June 22, 2017 - Updated: June 21, 2017

Chris Bianchi
Chris Bianchi

The quick answer: yes.

The real answer: it’s complicated.

Helped by an influx of transplants drawn to Colorado’s liberal marijuana laws, high-tech economy and overall high quality of life, the state, by most metrics, is in a considerable economic boom. That same associated population growth, by the way, likely means that the upcoming 2020 census will give Colorado another electoral vote, therefore increasing its political importance in future presidential elections, starting in 2024. More on this part later.

More importantly, at least in recent elections, Colorado’s population influx is highly educated and youthful. It’s no coincidence that registered Democrats, albeit by a tiny 6,000 majority amongst more than 3.3 million total voters, now outnumber Republicans in Colorado for the first time in 20 years — a huge swing for a once reliable Republican stronghold that voted for Bob Dole in 1996 and Ronald Reagan by 24 and 28 points, respectively, in the 1980s.

Two weeks before the election, CNN devoted a lengthy report detailing Colorado’s sharp left turn, even going as far as to openly question whether or not it should even qualify as a swing state anymore. Both sides on-again off-again pulled ads during the campaign cycle, with both the Trump and Clinton camps almost taking turns thinking that Clinton had the state all but wrapped up.

But the 2014 elections may counter that CNN report and several others questioning whether or not the Centennial State is still politically up for grabs. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper barely held off Bob Beauprez to maintain control of the governor’s mansion, and Cory Gardner ousted Democratic incumbent Mark Udall for one of Colorado’s two U.S. Senate seats.

Digging a bit deeper, the Republicans’ path to victory in Colorado is there, but it may involve an unusual Republican tactic: carefully distancing themselves from a White House of the same party.

The Blue-ification of the Front Range

There’s no doubt where and why Colorado’s swing state status is in limbo: Denver and the surrounding I-25 urban corridor’s seemingly nonstop population boom.

Of the approximately 511,000 people who moved to Colorado between 2010 and 2016 (a 10.2 percent population increase, fourth-most in the country for that time period), 65.4 percent of those, or about 334,000 people overall, moved to Denver’s seven primary metro counties (Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson).

Credit: Google Maps
Credit: Google Maps

In roughly that same time frame, the share of Coloradans with at least a bachelor’s degree jumped from 36.4 percent in 2010 to 39.2 percent in 2015. That 39.2 percent figure puts Colorado only behind Massachusetts and the District of Columbia for largest population share with at least a bachelor’s degree.

In 2010, Colorado Republicans outnumbered Democrats by about 36,000 voters. That number, as previously mentioned, flipped blue in 2016 for the first time in 20 years.

Recognizing that the majority of Colorado’s nine electoral votes are decided in metro Denver, Trump’s campaign made a strong play to win over Denver-area voters. Out of Trump’s 13 visits to the Centennial State during the presidential cycle, five were in the Denver metro area. Specifically, Trump went after Jefferson County in Denver’s western suburbs, hoping to sway the notorious swing county his way.

It didn’t work, but his more successful efforts in another part of the state may hold the Republican key for future elections.

Not so fast, young hipster

But even with Denver-Boulder growing and trending more and more blue, there are several glimmers of hope for local Republicans, particularly in one southern city.

Pueblo is a slice of the Midwest transplanted into the heart of Colorado’s gentrifying Front Range. Known as the ‘Steel City’ for its long history in producing metal, it underwent a major economic downturn in the 1980s following a collapse in steel prices, and its overall economic figures stand below the rest of Colorado, though big employment gains since the start of the year have cut its unemployment rate down to 3.2 percent from a January 2013 peak of 11.5 percent.

Pueblo was also the site of a historic Republican victory Nov. 8. Pueblo County voted Republican in a presidential election for the first time since 1972 — albeit by a grand total of 390 votes out of the nearly 79,000 ballots cast in the county — marking a clear and decisive shift for the once reliably blue southern Colorado city. Trump’s appeal here is linked to his economic populist message, and a place both sides campaigned hard to win.

Overall, 50 of Colorado’s 64 counties moved further right from 2012 to 2016, perhaps offering hope should the Denver-Boulder urban corridor population boom start to slow down.

There are also recent indications that Colorado’s decadeslong population boom may be slowing, which could offer Republicans a chance to regroup after three straight defeats at the presidential level. But even without a slowdown, Republicans have more than a glimmer of hope to paint Colorado red.

Wait – didn’t a Colorado Republican just win a senate seat in 2014?

In 2014, amid a record Republican wave at the national level that featured the GOP retaking the Senate, one of the key swing seats that helped the GOP accomplish this was Cory Gardner, then a congressman from the 4th District (eastern Plains and northern Colorado), defeating Democratic incumbent Mark Udall.

Gardner, long known as a rising star in the Colorado Republican Party, was first able to pull off a big upset in 2010, ousting Democrat Betsy Markey from Congress in Colorado’s 4th District, flipping it red, and he followed that by cruising to re-election two years later.

In his path to a Washington promotion in 2014, Gardner enjoyed healthy support from metro Denver, essentially drawing even in the swingy suburbs, allowing his conservative base in Colorado Springs and eastern Colorado to propel him to a narrow but decisive 3.5 percent win.

That Denver-area support, however, may be in some jeopardy.

Future Colorado GOP goals: threading the needle

The key for Colorado Republicans in future elections, then, may be striking a delicate balance between retaining Trump-leaning southern Colorado while keeping moderate and more Trump-sceptic Denver-area Republicans happy.

Gardner is attempting this political tap dance as he prepares to fend off Democratic challengers in 2020. He didn’t vote for Trump and he’s also made a point to strategically and publicly counter Trump on a limited number of issues, particularly relating to the Russian sanctions and the ongoing congressional investigation into Trump’s involvement with the Russians. For more moderate Republican voters in Denver’s suburbs who didn’t vote for Trump, this may incentivize voting for him — just as they did for 2016 Republican senatorial candidate Darryl Glenn, who finished closer than poll expectations against Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet, despite being out-spent by a more than four-to-one margin.

Glenn lost to Bennet in November by 3.9 percent, meaning he did a full percentage point better than Trump overall at the state level. The difference mostly came in and around Denver, where many Republicans who either didn’t vote or voted for Clinton turned around and voted for Glenn, speculatively as a ‘check’ on Clinton, who obviously was a heavy favorite heading into election night. Take a look at this chart, outlining the vote differential in Denver’s seven primary metro counties:

Credit: ChristopherBianchi.com
Credit: ChristopherBianchi.com

Another way to look at it: Denver-area counties were considerably more likely to vote for Clinton than for Obama four years prior (Clinton won Colorado overall by 4.9 percent in 2016, while Obama won the state by 4.7 percent in 2012), while mostly rural and sparsely populated counties showed the biggest swings to the right. Here’s another chart showing the top Colorado county vote percentage swings from 2012 to 2016:

Credit: ChristopherBianchi.com
Credit: ChristopherBianchi.com

The point: Denver-area voters specifically did not like Trump, and metro Denver’s seven primary counties accounted for 56.5 percent of ballots cast in November, meaning Trump’s big gains in the rest of the state (side note: El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, moved further red by one percentage point from 2012) were essentially worthless. As previously mentioned, Denver’s high proportion of well-educated voters made the area more prone to Trump skepticism, a strong trend observed Nov. 8 throughout the country. Those voters are unlikely to have swayed much in Trump’s favor since, considering his steadily declining approval ratings amid a tumultuous opening five months in office.

But for Republicans, this may be a sign that a more moderate candidate can win Denver’s suburban counties that often decide state elections.

Gardner, however, may have some challenges selling an anti-Trump stance based on his voting record so far under the 45th president, despite not voting for him. He’s mostly aligned with Trump on virtually every key issue, at least so far. FiveThirtyEight’s so-called ‘Trump score’, as of mid-June, gives Gardner a 95.3 percent rating, meaning Colorado’s junior senator has aligned himself with the president on 95.3 percent of issues and nominations. This may help Gardner keep some of the Trump voters in southern Colorado who switched sides in 2016, but a more public anti-Trump perception may keep enough Republican-leaning Denver-area voters from switching allegiances.

Congressman Mike Coffman, one of only 20 total Republican ‘no’ votes on the House of Representatives’ Obamacare repeal health care bill that narrowly passed in May, is also trying to walk this political tightrope. Coffman’s 6th District seat was the source of a contentious battle against Democratic challenger Morgan Carroll in November, but the fifth-term Republican walked away with an impressive eight-point win.

Coffman’s win is extra impressive considering he handily won a district that voted for Clinton by 8.9 percent — representing a nearly 17-point swing between his performance and Trump’s. Colorado’s 6th Congressional District mostly comprises Denver’s eastern and southern suburbs in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.

But Coffman faces another tough fight in a year and a half. A slew of Democratic challengers have already started targeting Coffman’s seat in 2018, notably including 38-year-old lawyer Jason Crow, an Iraq War veteran (like Coffman), an important attribute for a swing district that includes Buckley Air Force Base.

The Latino vote

Colorado’s Latino community is the eighth-largest in the country and accounts for about 10-15 percent of the total vote. However, unlike neighboring Arizona and New Mexico, Latinos aren’t necessarily the main reason for Colorado’s sharp turn to the left (although Hispanic registration efforts have made a difference in recent years). Between 2010 and 2015, the Latino share of the population in Colorado only grew by about a half of a percentage point, below the national Latino growth rate of about 1.6 percent for that time frame. In other words, the people migrating to the state mostly weren’t Latino.

It’s not to discount Colorado’s approximately 1.1 million Latinos and their increased voting power, but unlike many (if not most) other states, they’re not quite as much a driving force behind the Centennial State’s recent left turn.

Increasing electoral importance

More than anything, here’s what we unequivocally know: Colorado’s influence on future elections is growing, and quickly.

Civics refresher course: the Election College is divvied up based off the official U.S. census, which is conducted every 10 years.

Colorado — fresh off leapfrogging Minnesota as the 21st-most populated state in the U.S. — is a near-lock to gain at least one electoral vote after the 2020 census, and there’s an outside chance it gains a second. That’ll likely put Colorado at 10 electoral votes for the 2024 election, or about 1.86 percent of the country’s total electoral influence. So yes, come 2024, 2028 and beyond, that’ll mean your Colorado TV, phone or whatever fun gadgets we’ll be using at that point will be even more swamped with political ads.

In case you didn’t get that: Colorado is set to gain at least one electoral vote, but it wouldn’t go into effect until the 2024 presidential election, after the 2020 census.

Just gimme the gist of it

There is a delicate but achievable path for Republicans to win in Colorado, and that’ll quickly be put to test in 2018’s gubernatorial and congressional races. From a broad perspective, a pro-military, pro-environment and fiscal conservative who can successfully distance his or herself from Donald Trump, while retaining at least some of the considerable recent Republican gains in southern parts of the state, would appear to stand the best chance in a statewide election.

But rather than focus on a wall with Mexico, perhaps Republicans should close the state’s borders from the young, left-leaning electorate flooding state voting booths.

In other words, it’s complicated.

Chris Bianchi

Chris Bianchi

Chris Bianchi is a journalist with extensive experience in newspaper, online media, radio and television. He has worked for ESPN Denver as executive producer and currently works as a nationally broadcast meteorologist for WeatherNation. He is a graduate of Boston University and has a fascination with international politics.