DENVER — Something weird is happening in Colorado: Democrats are sounding optimistic about the presidential race here. And Democrats are not used to winning in Colorado.
In the past 50 years, the state has given a majority of its presidential vote to a Democrat just once. That was in 1964, when the state voted for Lyndon Johnson during his historic landslide over Barry Goldwater. The only other time the state's electoral votes went to a Democrat was in 1992, when Bill Clinton carried Colorado with just 40 percent of the vote because Ross Perot was in the race. Perot, running as an independent that year, got nearly a fourth of the vote in Colorado, and then-President George H.W. Bush fell below 36 percent.
Colorado does elect a few Democrats to statewide offices. But they have to be independent and a little bit ornery: former Govs. Dick Lamm and Roy Romer come to mind. But it's been a decade since a Democrat won a marquee race here. And for president, Colorado is solidly Republican. Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy is a numbers man and he's examined voting statistics going back decades. He says that when it comes to White House races, Colorado has consistently voted Republican by four percentage points more than the country as a whole.
Even Sen. John Kerry's campaign manager in Colorado, Sue Casey, says she originally thought the state would go to President Bush. When Casey took the job, she imagined there being little chance for a nail-biter. After all, Mr. Bush beat Al Gore here by nine percentage points four years ago, and Colorado has been red on all the prognosticators' maps since the 2004 election cycle began.
But now Casey says Kerry has a good chance of winning here, and the polls back her up. The Kerry campaign recently cut back on the number of TV ads it's airing locally, but the Democratic nominee visited the state just last weekend and his people insist Colorado is still in play. Probably the best evidence that they are right is the frequent appearance of Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Over the last few weeks it seems one or the other has either been present in Colorado or planning a visit soon.
The president was here again on Monday with his big gun, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Mr. Bush held a rally in Greeley just eight days before the election and yet another visit is expected before Nov. 2. And all this in a month in which the president has hardly been in the critical battleground state of Ohio.
So, why is Colorado not locked down Republican at this late stage in this election? No one seems to have a good answer to that question. One thought is that in a contest closely fought nationwide, any number of states may break from their traditional voting pattern. Polls show a close race in Hawaii, which has voted Republican only twice since statehood. And other states won easily by Al Gore in 2000, including Michigan and New Jersey, have shown signs of being competitive this year.
But Colorado also has a story of its own to tell. The Census Bureau says Denver is now a majority minority city (less than 50 percent Anglo). Colorado's Hispanic population is growing quickly and here Hispanics tend to favor for Democrats. Their interest this fall has been pumped by the candidacy of Ken Salazar, the Democratic nominee for the Senate.
Kerry supporters say it's the president's handling of the Iraq war. But Colorado was not one of those states that saw a lot of anti-war protests and bumper stickers leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Others say maybe it's the economy. Colorado's recovery has lagged behind the nation's, but most here seem to blame that on the decline of the high-tech and telecommunications industries and not the president, specifically.
We may not know why the race is close in Colorado until it's over and numbers guys like Professor Loevy have a chance to look over the figures to determine who voted for whom.
But surely one factor is the decreased interest in this year's version of the Ralph Nader option. As the nominee of the Green Party in 2000, Nader got more than 91,000 votes here — good for five percent. This year, running on his own, Nader is getting between one and two percent in Colorado polls — roughly equivalent to his showing nationally.
That could be a sign that the state's eco-sensitive left may be willing to move back to the Democratic nominee this year. If so, it could help Kerry capitalize on the demographic shifts, doubts about the war and dissatisfaction with the local economy. That may not be enough to carry the state for the Democrat, but it's been enough to force the president and vice president to defend a state they carried handily in 2000. And how many other cases of that have we seen this fall?