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Volatile Colorado polling forces presidential campaigns to lurch into action

By: Jennifer Oldham Bloomberg News
October 7, 2016 Updated: October 7, 2016 at 7:08 pm
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Ten days before Colorado's first all-mail presidential election begins, at least a quarter of the state's notoriously unpredictable voters are still up for grabs.

It's not just the prized votes of independents, millennials and Hispanics that the presidential candidates must fret over. Coloradans interviewed in counties that rank among the nation's most difficult to predict said they might not make up their mind until Election Day. As indecision reigns, campaign mangers worry voters will put off, forget or choose not to send in their ballots.

"I'm still undecided," said Jamie Bearden, a 36-year-old Denver hygienist at Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson's first rally in Colorado on Monday. "I'm a registered Republican but I'm not voting that way. I could vote for Johnson. Or I might not."

The uncertainty pervading the state's electorate is leaving pollsters flummoxed, with some surveys showing Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton neck and neck and others giving her a comfortable margin. With the race nationwide seemingly tied and the leader here anybody's guess, both candidates have been forced to amp up their Colorado campaigns as they vie for its precious nine electoral votes.

About 200 paid staffers work for Clinton in Colorado out of 27 offices. The Trump campaign is relying on 11 outposts staffed by 47 people, largely managed by the state or national Republican committees.

Campaign volunteers are pounding the streets and calling page after page of likely voters. Clinton proxies around Denver have been asking voters to fill out a postcard pledging support for the former secretary of state. The campaign then mails the note back as a reminder to cast a ballot.

Ambivalence in the nation's fastest-growing metro area after Austin, Texas, mirrors the transformation of the conventional electoral landscape as the most divisive presidential campaign in a generation enters its final lap. Like Ohio and Virginia, Colorado was, and then wasn't, considered a swing state. The candidates didn't make whistle-stop visits to Colorado communities for months. Trump and the Republican National Committee didn't organize here in earnest until August. The Clinton campaign pulled TV advertising in July.

While the state went for Obama in 2012 and 2008, its electorate is far from a sure thing for his party.

Voters are divided almost equally among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Democrats control the state House and Republicans the state Senate and four of the state's seven Congressional seats. Despite a widespread conviction that Colorado has transformed into a blue state, statistics tell a different story.

"People think we are a blue state - that's not true," said Tom Cronin, a professor of American institutions and leadership at Colorado College.

"At the county commissioner level we are two-to-one Republican," said Cronin, who co-authored "Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State." "Relatively popular Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper didn't get even 50 percent of the vote when he ran two years ago."

With the nation's fourth-highest rate of growth in 2015, the Centennial State's Caucasian cowboy heritage is morphing into a cosmopolitan melting pot that defies categorization. Colorado is home to the eighth-largest Latino population in the U.S. Pot smokers are ardent gun rights supporters. Millennials who moved to the state from California and the Northeast are mobilizing for Trump. These paradoxes make gauging the electoral mood tricky.

"This diverse set of people makes it harder to poll than a place like Minnesota," said Jim Williams, an analyst with North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling. "It puts things more in flux and explains why we see a wide variance in polling."

About 40 percent of the 18-to-29 year olds who responded to a YouGov/CBS News poll released Sept. 25 said they planned to vote for Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, or they were unsure or wouldn't vote. Twenty-three percent of 30-to-44 year olds responded similarly.

One of the biggest unknowns in Colorado is how much of the electorate will vote for Johnson, whose positions on legalized marijuana, fiscal conservatism and social liberalism appeal to independents. Thirteen percent of 1,010 respondents to a CNN/ORC poll released Sept. 26 supported the candidate, whose son lives in Denver. Trump was up by one percentage point over Clinton.

To win Colorado, pundits say, candidates must overcome a widespread feeling that the election is about choosing between two evils.

At an Oct. 3 rally in Loveland, Trump volunteers plucked attendees from a blocks-long line and ushered them into the Budweiser Events Center to make calls urging folks to come to the event. In north Denver on the night Trump and Clinton debated for the first time, Clinton staffers exhorted patrons at "Jake's" - where the smell of hamburger mixed with the skunky odor of cannabis from a dispensary next door - to participate in weekly phone banks hosted by octogenarians.

Clinton has emphasized voter registration, relying on volunteers like those recently posted outside the Columbine Library in Jefferson County. Staffed seven days a week, supporters planted behind a cardboard table with baby blue Clinton campaign signs taped to the front ask patrons entering the building if they need to update their voting records. The campaign is training more recruits to man similar stations around town at King Soopers, Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.

Clinton's focus on voter registration appears to be working: Democrats in Colorado added almost twice as many voters as Republicans this year and for the first time outnumber their rivals by about 6,000, according to state election data.

"I've had some Republicans change to unaffiliated and some unaffiliated voters change to Democrats," said Paula Parmentier, 60, a retired finance administrator who volunteers "12 hours a day" for Clinton.

Twenty-eight miles to the southeast in Douglas County, Trump volunteers canvass using a "walk book" - a smart-phone app that pinpoints the homes of persuadable voters using data purchased from the secretary of state.

The campaign shoots for 60 doors during each two-hour shift, said Skylar King, a campaign field organizer. Patrick Weydemuller, an Army veteran recovering from a traumatic brain injury he sustained when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb on his second tour in Iraq, recently walked a neighborhood near Parker.

Wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt and a lion's head tattoo on his lower left arm, the Castle Rock resident knocked on a door as an American flag flew overhead. No one answered and he hung a door tag on the knob outlining Trump's platform.

"I'm a registered independent - I used to be a Republican but I was disappointed with them," Weydemuller said. "Career politicians trying to reform the VA are doing a terrible job. I'm tired of what's been going on the last eight years."

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