Battle for Colorado Heats Up as Candidates Prep for Denver Debate

Mark McKinnon says Romney needs all the help he can get in the swing state that usually picks a winner.

Rocky Mountain high. That’s what some folks figured two political scientists from the University of Colorado were experiencing. Their electoral college modeling based on economic indicators in all 50 states, released at the end of August, shows Mitt Romney as the likely winner of November’s election in a blowout—320 electoral votes to just 218 for President Obama.

This prediction flies in the face of conventional wisdom, current polling, and other predictive modeling, but it does draw attention to two key factors: the economy and the Electoral College.

The economy will likely be the hot topic in the first presidential debate, with its focus on domestic policy, to be held Wednesday night just down the road at the University of Denver. A few questions may focus on social issues, on immigration with the state’s 20 percent Hispanic population, on the environment after this summer’s wildfires, or even on gun control after the Aurora shootings, but the economy is still the top domestic concern here, as it is across the country.

The unemployment rate in Colorado has generally tracked with the national average, but economic recovery in the state has been uneven across geographies and industries. And sequestration cuts to come to the Pentagon’s budget may affect Lockheed Martin, a major employer in the state. Although the defense contractor has agreed not to issue employee layoff notices before the election at the direction of the Obama administration, voters’ worries are not so easily allayed.

From an Electoral College perspective, a debate hosted in Colorado matters. Why? The state ranks 22nd with a population just twice that of the city of Chicago. But Colorado is a swing state and therefore one of the so-called battleground states. Its nine electoral votes may count more than other states’, even though fewer people are represented.

In the last 10 presidential elections, Colorado voted Republican eight times and Democratic twice, including 2008 when the state went for Obama. And eight times it voted with the winner, excluding 1976 and 1996.

But the state, like the nation, is split politically. The area around Colorado Springs, with its tourism industry and military concentration, tends to vote Republican. The Denver-Boulder metro area, with its young population attracted by high-tech jobs and a relaxed outdoor lifestyle, usually votes Democratic.

Romney and Obama each have visited Colorado eight times since June, and polls there show them in a tie, as a toss-up, or with a slight lean left.

Although Colorado’s governor and two U.S. senators are Democrats, Republican registered voters slightly outnumber Democrats. But,nearly a third of the state’s voters are independents. They may go either way. Add Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson to the mix and the vote gets even tighter.

As Colorado goes, so too may go the nation.

That’s why this first debate matters so much for Romney. It’s make-or-break time.

Romney has to be hoping that the high altitude and thin air get to the president. He needs all the help he can get for a different kind of Rocky Mountain high.