A front lawn in Littleton, Colorado
This is part one of the Prospect’s weeklong series on the swing districts that could determine the national outcome on November 6.
Greg Archuleta lives in Golden, Colorado, where he worked for the Coors brewery for 34 years until he retired in 1999. Archuleta, who is 73, volunteers for the Democratic Party in the larger Jefferson County area, 778 square miles of suburbs just west of Denver that holds half a million people. On a recent Saturday drive, Archuleta was worried. For the past few months, he’s been asking property owners with backyards facing the highway if they would hang giant signs for President Barack Obama and the local congressman, Democrat Ed Perlutter, who’s in a tough battle for re-election. Now, some of the Obama signs had come down; more and more signs for Mitt Romney were up. Archuleta drove between shopping malls and new condos and subdivisions, investigating the grassy tracts between road and neighborhood. “There it is!” he’d shout when he spotted one.
There’s a good reason Archuleta is counting the signs. Jefferson County is one of a handful of districts in the nation with the power to swing a swing state, and thereby determine the outcome of the national election. Colorado’s District 7 is a swing district by design. A judge created it after the 2000 census gave Colorado a new seat in Congress and the state legislature couldn’t agree on its boundaries. The judge made it a snapshot of the state economically and politically: The population was divided into even thirds of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. In the decade that followed, the district began to tilt Democratic until it was redrawn after the 2010 census, after which it split some areas with neighboring District 6, which leaned more Republican, making both more competitive.
Jefferson County went for Obama by nine points in 2008, and to Bush by nine points in 2000 and by six in 2004. It has eight cities and five towns with smaller, unincorporated developments in between. Situated between Denver and the mountains, the county is pockmarked, diverse in every sense of the word. There are enclaves of working-class families of all races, trailer-park neighborhoods where poverty rates have doubled since the recession hit, and bedroom communities with SUVs parked in front of neat, two-story houses. Far west, small mountain towns dot the landscape along the way to ski resorts. The county ends in a few nature reserves and parks that meet up with the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, green hills giving way to snowy peaks. The most heavily populated areas, closest to Denver, are the most diverse politically. Golden, where Archuleta lives, sits at the western edge of the suburban ring.
The fundamental demographic changes that turned Colorado blue in 2008 still hold. The Denver metropolitan area, which includes Jefferson County, is getting younger as recent college graduates move in. It’s become browner. Nationwide trends hold here; there has also been a rise in single women, who tend to vote more progressive on a number of issues than does the population as a whole. In the 2010 census, Jefferson County’s population was 534,543, smaller than Denver County by only 65,465 people. About 15 percent of the county is Hispanic—a smaller proportion than both Denver and the state as a whole, but a crucial voting block.
But it’s working- and middle-class whites in Jefferson County who voted for Obama in larger numbers than many expected in 2008, and their vote is more up for grabs this year. “We weren’t seeing a lot of enthusiasm from Obama supporters,” says Kevin Pape, a regional director for Working America, an offshoot of the AFL-CIO that serves as a sort of non-union union by organizing in middle- and working-class neighborhoods. “A lot of the folks we talked to, they’re the folks that don’t feel like the economy has turned around fast enough, like the president hasn’t delivered on his promises.”
Most observers in the state agree that Romney’s organizational base is tiny compared to the Obama campaign’s—Romney has 11 state offices, compared with 62 on the Obama side. In Jefferson County alone, Obama has eight offices, each crowded with a half-dozen or so busy campaign volunteers and staffers who sit at foldout tables on laptops. Romney has just two, both in neighborhoods that serve as his Republican base: upper-middle to upper-class families in gated and subdivided communities.
A Romney office in Littleton sits in a shopping center just off a main thoroughfare in what looks like a former tanning salon. Visitors enter a small lobby and are divided by a built-in desk from offices in the back. Compared with Obama’s various campaign outposts, it’s empty and quiet. On a recent afternoon, a few elderly residents strolled by to pick up “Fire Obama!” and “Romney-Ryan” signs. An older woman born in Trinidad, who declined to share her name, summed up the opposition to Obama here well: “I don’t want this country going socialist!”
The Romney campaign has gotten busier in recent weeks, as more Colorado voters have been paying attention and Obama’s lead has narrowed. “The energy and enthusiasm following the Denver debate has been off the charts,” says Chris Walker, a Romney spokesperson in the state. “A lot of people have been thinking about the past four years and don’t think they’re better off.”
Pape and other Working America staffers canvass neighborhoods full of voters on the fence—they register voters and then work to turn out the vote for the Democratic candidates they’ve endorsed (Working America is a 501(c)(5), and Working America Education Fund is a 501 (c)(3)). He says that, from the group’s canvassing, Romney voters seem most energized by their hatred of the president. “We’re not seeing anybody who’s saying, ‘I like what he has to say about X, or I really like what he’s going to do for education,’” Pape says. “They’re definitely enthusiastic, but it’s mostly in their opposition to the president.”
While Romney’s Colorado supporters are fired up, there’s less excitement among those who helped lift Obama to victory in 2008. Maybe that was inevitable. The 2008 Obama campaign had lightning in a bottle few could expect to capture again.
Just two weeks before the election, Melissa Dronen, a canvasser for Working America, set off door-to-door in the town of Arvada, holding an iPad with a list of houses to target and arm-warmers to guard against the chilling fall air. She loves meeting voters face to face, and is ready to smile, crack a few jokes, and win over any reluctant door-answerer—few things phase her after eight years of doing this kind of work. It’s her job not only to canvass voters on issues but to get them committed to voting for Working America’s candidates, which this year includes Obama and Perlmutter. Perlmutter is this year facing a challenge from Joe Coors, an heir to the brewery. Coors has pumped millions into the race. He offered the landlord for Perlmutter’s former local congressional office more rent and then moved in so that voters looking for Perlmutter would find him instead. If elected, Coors could become the richest member of the House of Representatives.
At the third door Dronen knocks on—a modest, two-story house that holds two Working America members—she meets Rebecca. Melissa introduces herself and asks what issues matter most to Rebecca this election season. “Probably the economy,” she answers. “When Dronen asks for specifics, Rebecca replies, “Just having a strong economy, having jobs.”
“Definitely,” Dronen responds. “Obviously it’s a huge concern. It’s a big concern for folks all around the neighborhood. Do you know, as far as the presidential race is going, if it was held today, if you would be supporting Obama or Romney?”
Rebecca wavers. “I’m kind of leaning toward Romney. I mean Obama!” she laughs. “I know my husband’s going to go Obama, but I’m not totally sure myself.”
Dronen launches into her spiel. “We do a lot of research on these candidates, and we have endorsed Obama as well as Perlmutter, based on their records and how best they’re going to be the ones to represent working families, not only here in Colorado but around the nation.”
Dronen goes on to tell Rebecca about Obama’s goal of ending tax breaks to companies that shift jobs overseas, and other economic initiatives. “Do you think based on this information you’d be more apt to support Obama?” Rebecca says, “Yeah, I might be, yeah.” She sounds as noncommittal as before, and glances at the door throughout the conversation. There’s a sense that part of her is being nice to Dronen, and she really just wants to go back inside.
So far, the Romney and Coors campaigns have relied mostly on a media strategy—airing tons of ads on radio and television and putting up billboards—and Pape hasn’t seen many groups canvassing on the Republicans’ behalf. Republican voter-registration efforts in Colorado were run by Strategic Allied Consultants, which the GOP cut ties with after the group was found to have turned in fake voter-registration forms in Florida (though there’s no evidence any of the work they did in Colorado was fraudulent). Overall, more Republicans are registered in the state than Democrats, but new voter registrations on the Democratic side have outpaced Republicans since the state held its caucuses in February—126,656 compared to 74,419 as of last week. A lot of that is due to voter-registration efforts in Jefferson County and similar important areas by third-party groups like Working America; New Era, which works to register young voters and get them out to vote; and groups that organize Latino voters. The Republican ground game here is only now revving up, but there are a lot of votes the Republicans could easily get with a little persuasion. “I think they’re going to break for Romney,” Pape says. “It’s just a question of how many of them do. I still think the coalition is there that are turned off by Romney’s position on things other than the economy, but it’s going to be closer.”
The turnout question is a big one all across Colorado, not least because the Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler, has taken cues from secretaries of state around the country and made efforts to try to suppress it.
Colorado has a large population that votes from home through mail-in ballots, and Gessler established a new rule that anyone who didn’t vote in 2010 is no longer active, which means they’ll find out this week that their ballots weren’t automatically sent to them. (They’re still eligible and registered to vote, but they’ll have to go through the additional effort of obtaining a ballot or going to the polls.) That group most likely includes a large number of new Obama voters who didn’t bother to vote in the midterms. Another group Gessler has targeted is about 4,000 voters—most Hispanic—from whom he’s asked for proof of citizenship. After a court challenge, Gessler ultimately backed off pushing these document requirements for 2012, but they still had an effect on voter attitudes.
“Individuals that I’ve spoken to are even more pissed, so they’re like ‘Hell yeah, I’m going to show up and vote!’” says Lorena Garcia, executive director of a nonprofit group called Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. “Other individuals are like, ‘What for? If they don’t want us to vote they’re probably not going to count our votes anyway. There are a lot of ranges of skepticism and anger that are motivating or de-motivating.”
The swinginess of Colorado will depend both on the turnout of the rising American electorate and on how voters like Rebecca in Jefferson County vote. It’s why the Romney campaign has spent all its energy trying to stoke dissatisfaction into anger and is launching a tour in deeply red areas of the state this week to drum up excitement. It’s also why Obama supporters are pounding the pavement to register new voters. The Obama campaign spent a few days in early October taking a bus full of local politicians around the state to meet with volunteers at campaign offices in towns like Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, both in Jefferson County. At a recent get-together at the Wheat Ridge office, Congressman Perlmutter, an energetic 59-year-old who grew up here was greeted with a standing ovation. “I’m fired up and I’m ready to go!” he said. He thanked the crowd for its canvassing work and rallied them for another day, the last before the state deadline for voter registrations. “We changed the direction of this nation four years ago,” he said. “It will be a great four years ahead of us!”
None of it keeps Archuleta from searching for signs for reassurance. “Lots of strong Democrats in here,” he says when he starts seeing a lot of his signs, and breathes a sigh of relief.