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Colorado Could Be a Swing State
in the Presidential Race

By Floyd Ciruli
June 18, 2004

Despite Colorado’s Republican track record in recent presidential elections, both presidential campaigns have begun spending money as if Colorado is a battleground. Does it really make sense to treat Colorado as one of four western states that could swing the election?

It has been long assumed President Bush would need to defend Arizona (Bush by 6% in 2000) and Nevada (Bush by 4%). Al Gore won New Mexico by only 365 votes and presumptive 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry would clearly target that. But Colorado has not been on the list of swing states. Bush won Colorado by 8 percent in 2000. Republican Bob Dole beat Bill Clinton in Colorado by 2 percent in 1996 while Clinton easy won re-election (8% nationally). Although Clinton won Colorado in 1992, it was largely a by-product of Ross Perot winning 23% of the vote (one of his largest state totals). Most of Perot’s campaign and a majority of his votes were anti-President Bush senior. The picture has not improved for Colorado Democrats. The 2002 election was a disaster. A vulnerable incumbent, U.S. Senator Wayne Allard, won re-election with the help of repeated visits from President Bush, and Republicans picked up the new post-2000 census congressional seat (won by Bob Beauprez).

Since the mid-90s, Colorado has been strongly Republican in local politics. New residents in one of the nation’s fastest growing states have given Republicans a 180,000-voter registration advantage. Good candidate recruitment, well conducted campaigns and a popular anti-tax agenda secured Republican control of both senate seats, five out of seven congressional seats, every statewide office except attorney general and, aside from a brief two years, control of both houses of the legislature for more than two decades.

But each presidential election offers its own list of battleground states. In recent weeks the calculations of the national campaigns have changed.

  • The election is assumed to be very close; only a handful of states are in contention. The Kerry campaign effort to assemble 270 electoral votes has prompted them to upgrade their western state strategy, and reduce emphasis on southern states. (The midwest continues to be the primary battleground. For example, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin are key states.)

  • Colorado is the next logical western state after New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada (see table). In 2000, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana all provided Bush margins between 25% to more than 40%.

  • Among mountain western state, Colorado has the second-largest (9) amount of electoral votes after Arizona (10)

Rocky Mountain Western States
Key Factors in Presidential Election
State 2000
2000 Vote/%
Arizona Bush by 6% 10(+2) McCain (R) 25% 45,645 (3%)
Colorado Bush by 8% 9(+1) Campbell (R) 17% 91,434 (5%)
Idaho Bush by 40% 4 Crapo (R) 8% 12,292 (2%)
Montana Bush by 25% 3 -- 2% 24,437 (6%)
Nevada Bush by 4% 5(+1) Reid (D) 20% 15,008 (2%)
New Mexico Gore by 0.1% 5 -- 42% 21,251 (4%)
Utah Bush by 41% 5 Bennett (R) 9% 35,850 (5%)
Wyoming Bush by 40% 3 -- 6% 5,298 (2%)
* Number in parenthesis indicates new electoral votes since 2000 census Source: Ciruli Associates, 2004

  • Due to the surprise retirement of U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado has a competitive Senate race that could bring out Democrats. In fact, the likely Democrat nominee, Attorney General Ken Salazar, leads likely Republican contenders by 10 or more percentage points in early polls.

  • Hispanic population grew more than 70% since the 1990 census and now constitutes 17% of Colorado’s population. Hispanics historically are under-registered and have below-average voter turnout. If Democrats, with Salazar as their Senate candidate, can motivate Hispanics, the 2000 exit polls show a Democrat could win 75 percent of Hispanic support.

  • Colorado Republicans have been somewhat divided in recent months, and have been on the defensive on state issues. Popular Gov. Bill Owens lost a recent statewide referendum on water and has been defending the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the nation’s toughest tax-limitation measure, during the state’s most severe recession and revenue crisis. The events surrounding Campbell’s sudden withdrawal have highlighted divisions in a normally unified party. Much of the conservative establishment is rallying behind former Congressman Bob Schaffer, while Owens and a group of big donors are backing businessman Peter Coors. The party appears to be headed for a divisive primary.

Democrats still face several challenges. Notably, Ralph Nader has made the Colorado presidential ballot. He received 91,434 votes in the 2000 Colorado presidential race. Many of those votes would have gone to Al Gore, and while it would not have made a difference in 2000, it could in 2004.

On balance, Colorado remains a tough challenge. But if Democrats were to add a western state to their battleground list, Colorado would be it. Republicans would be wise to take it seriously.

Ciruli Associates • 1490 Lafayette St., Suite 208• Denver, CO 80218 • PH (303) 399-3173 • FAX (303) 399-3147.

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