What’s the swingiest state of them all?

By any measure, Colorado is at the center of the action in 2012

COLORADO — The term “swing state” is bandied about constantly in an election year, often without a clear explanation of what it means. But two recent articles in the national press offer a way to understand the term—and both suggest Colorado may play a key role in the coming election.

The first comes from Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog appears in The New York Times. In a post late last month, Silver argued that swing states are not just those that could go either way in a particular presidential contest, but those where the outcome could swing the result of the election.

To determine the swingiest state or “tipping-point state” in the 2008 election, Silver listed the states in order of most to least Democratic—D.C. and Hawaii at the top, Oklahoma and Wyoming at the bottom. Then he added the number of Electoral College votes in each Democratic state until he got a majority for Barack Obama. The state that put the president over the top? Colorado. And since, as Silver says, “the ordering of the states is usually fairly consistent from year to year,” there’s a good chance Colorado will play a key role again in 2012. (If you want to predict tipping-point states yourself but don’t want to go to the trouble of putting all the states in order, Silver offers a shortcut—look for states where presidential polls are similar to the national survey results.)

Silver’s statistical take was soon supplemented by Ron Brownstein in The Atlantic. Writing after Obama’s reversal on gay marriage, Brownstein didn’t try to identify swing states—in fact, he didn’t even use the term. What he did was try to identify the “modern Democratic coalition”—that is, the party’s key constituencies within those swing states. And the pillars of that coalition, Brownstein wrote, are “young people, college-educated whites (especially women), and minorities.” The gay marriage announcement, Brownstein wrote:

shows the president, however reluctantly, formulating an agenda that implicitly acknowledges the party is unlikely to recreate the support it attracted from the white working-class and senior voters who anchored Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. Instead, the announcement shows him reaching out to mobilize the new pillars of the Democratic electorate, particularly younger people and socially liberal white-collar whites.

The key state under this analysis? Again, Colorado. Brownstein cites a 2010 interview with David Axelrod, in which Obama’s senior campaign strategist describes Democratic Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s victory amidst a Republican rout as a “model” for the president’s 2012 strategy. “Bennet won despite a stampede toward the GOP among blue-collar and rural whites by mobilizing young people, minorities, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially suburban women (he carried 60 percent of college-educated women according to exit polls),” Brownstein wrote.

Inspired by all this attention on my home state, I turned to some local political observers for their views on what makes Colorado a swing state, and what effect that’s likely to have on the campaign here. I heard a variety of answers, ranging from Colorado’s large independent voting bloc to its growing Hispanic population to its conflicted, love-hate relationship with the federal government.

Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, calls Colorado “an interesting case in that it has not been a swing state that long. Colorado was relatively safe for GOP candidates up until decade ago.”

That changed, Masket said, with the influx of Democratic-leaning migrants from the West Coast, many drawn by the high-tech jobs in the metro Denver area. “The political geography of the state is pretty fascinating. Boulder and Denver are quite liberal, while Colorado Springs is very, very conservative, and the west is slightly libertarian.”

But while Colorado itself may be changing, the outlines of the “Bennet strategy” or “Colorado strategy” do not strike Masket as especially novel. “In some ways it just doesn’t seem like a huge departure from the past. African-Americans, Latinos and women have been voting disproportionately Democratic for decades now,” he said.

John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, noted that Colorado has frequently displayed a split personality in state elections, simultaneously voting for GOP legislatures and Democratic governors.

“You’ve got a 21 percent Hispanic population that leans Democratic, an environmental group that leans Democratic, but you don’t have super strong labor unions. In the business/labor relationship, business has the edge there,” Straayer said.

Like many western states, Straayer said, Colorado is in the odd position of depending on federal funding for massive public water and land programs, “and yet there’s a strain of resentment about the central control out of Washington.”

Straayer and Masket agreed that the Hispanic vote was a key factor in 2010—not just in Colorado, but other western states where Democrats prevailed against the GOP tide. Ruben Valdez, a lobbyist and former speaker of the Colorado House, noted that Hispanics make up 31 percent of Denver’s population, and an increasing share of the nearby suburban counties—and they have been participating in growing numbers.

Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Denver political commentator and pollster, pointed to another important voting bloc he sees as key to the election: independents. “Thirty percent of voters here are not attached to either party,” he said, which means they will be micro-targeted via social media and advertising by both major parties. (Though when discussing self-declared independents, it’s useful to remember that most of them have some attachment to one party or the other.)

Independent voters, Ciruli said, “get most of their cues from the media. They are ad-oriented, they make decisions late, they have less commitment, and they can change their minds.” They need to be constantly persuaded, and “typically, you do that by putting a headline in front of them that says the other person is extreme or terrible or corrupt.”

But whether the target is swing voters or turning out the base, the message war—at least for Obama’s camp—may be the same. Masket said that the national GOP’s “embrace of a more cultural and religious conservatism”—its positions on immigration and birth control, for example—may give Democrats an increased incentive to turn out. (Straayer speculated that state GOP lawmakers’ move to kill a civil-unions bill could have a similar effect.)

At the same time, Masket said, Democrats will be “trying to take advantage of independent voters who might normally consider voting Republican” by convincing them that the party has become “extreme.”

Romney and the Republicans, in turn, will no doubt have their own messages. For the journalists who try to make sense of the fight, it’ll be a busy year here in the swingiest state of them all.

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.