The western state of Colorado typically has voted for Republican presidential candidates in recent decades. But this year, Democrat Barack Obama is running neck and neck with Republican John McCain. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Longmont, Colorado, the political landscape has changed with the state's demographics.
Republican presidential candidates have been able to count on Colorado for the past 40 years with the exception of 1992, when third-party candidate Ross Perot took 23 percent of the vote, allowing Democrat Bill Clinton to win over the first President George Bush. But in the past decade, the Rocky Mountain state has changed demographically and politically.
Democratic state senator Brandon Schaffer, who represents the Longmont area north of Denver, says his party has won state offices by going beyond ideology to appeal to voters on practical issues.
"In 2004, we were one of the only states where we actually flipped [changed party control] both chambers in the legislature. In 2006, we elected a Democratic governor. The momentum that is now sweeping across the United States of America from red to blue [i.e., Republican to Democrat], I think started here in Colorado," he said.
Schaffer says this momentum is now favoring Barack Obama. He says the Democratic Party's decision to hold its national convention in Denver also helped energize voters in favor of Obama.
But outside the McCain campaign office on Longmont's Main Street, Republican Nancy Netzel takes a different view. She says Colorado remains conservative at its core, but she concedes that Obama has been more successful than McCain at reaching voters.
"That is because I think Obama with all his money, he has more voices getting out over the airwaves. And I feel that McCain just has not gotten his message out there because I believe Colorado has always been more of a conservative state and he is just not getting his message out there," she said.
In the end, Netzel says, social issues like abortion will drive many conservative Coloradans to vote for McCain.
University of Colorado political scientist Ken Bickers says the surge of support for Obama and Democratic candidates in general this year is partly due to the economy, but that it also stems from a 13 percent growth in population over the past several years.
"Colorado has experienced huge demographic changes over the last decade with people moving here from all over the country, many from California. And those people come with their own political backgrounds," Bickers noted. "They do not have the particular history that was Colorado's before they arrived here."
Bickers says Democrats have gained mostly in the Denver metropolitan area, where about half of the state's nearly five million people live. There has been a growth in the number of Hispanics in that area as well. And polls show that they favor Obama by a margin of almost two-to-one. Other areas of the state remain strongly Republican, especially the south, the eastern prairies and the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.
The economy is the chief concern of Colorado voters these days and Ken Bickers says this helps the Democrats because voters tend to blame the party in the White House for economic problems. But, he says, the energy boom in gas and oil in western Colorado has created jobs, while home foreclosures and job cutbacks plague the Denver area.
"People are losing jobs east of the continental divide [on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains]; there are jobs hunting for people west of the continental divide [on the western side of the Rocky Mountains]. So in a sense, the politics as well as the economy of the state are really bifurcated by the continental divide," he said.
Bickers says Coloradans are also concerned about issues such as terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other foreign policy issues, where John McCain is seen as having an advantage. He says many people here give McCain credit for his early support for the surge in Iraq and that this would help him were it not for the economy being the main voter issue now.
"The fact that the surge seems to have worked and to be working means that we don't need to talk about Iraq very much and so people can focus almost exclusively on the economy. It would help him enormously if people were focusing on national security and foreign policy," he said.
Ken Bickers says the fact that the Republican candidate is struggling here represents a significant change not only in Colorado but also throughout America's western intermountain region. He says New Mexico and Nevada have also shifted toward the Democrats, in part because of demographic changes and that even Arizona probably would be a contested state this year were it not McCain's home state.