It’s impossible to know what the fall campaign might have looked like in Colorado if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't restricted travel and traditional campaign activities like large-scale rallies and face-to-face organizing. As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden slog their way toward Election Day, it’s clear, however, that Colorado isn’t the pivotal state it has been in recent years.
At press time, neither Trump nor Biden had any visits to Colorado on the calendar, and between the two of them had attended a grand total of one public event in the state all year, when Trump held a massive rally in Colorado Springs in February, during the brief window between impeachment proceedings and the onset of the pandemic.
Biden has spent some time in the state — both in person earlier this year and in a virtual visit this week — but only to attend fundraisers. Trump had a fundraiser scheduled in the Denver area in early March but canceled it as the coronavirus took hold.
And this year, while both the Trump and Biden campaigns say Colorado is crucial to their paths to the White House, neither is treating the state as the battleground it has been for the previous three cycles, when all eyes were on Colorado’s voters, and the presidential candidates, their running mates and family members were fixtures in the state’s landscape.
There’s little question Colorado’s nine electoral votes aren’t up for grabs this year to the same extent they were in 2008, 2012 and 2016 — Biden has led Trump in every publicly available poll conducted this year, usually by double digits, reflecting both the state electorate’s sharp turn to the left in the 2018 election and Trump’s deep unpopularity among state voters.
This year, the battleground includes perennial swing state Florida and recent additions Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina, as well as Arizona and Iowa and a number of other states getting more attention than Colorado, including Minnesota, Georgia and even Texas.
Both campaigns are investing in field operations meant to turn out every last vote, but anyone who lived through the last three presidential cycles in Colorado — when September and October were chock-a-block with candidates and spouses, sometimes appearing across town from each other on the same day — knows this year’s presidential campaign isn't the same.
In 2012, Colorado was considered the linchpin state by both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney’s campaigns, as anyone with a television set during the months leading up to the election could attest. During October that year, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, Denver viewers saw more presidential TV ads than any other market in the country — and that was after they kicked off the debates in the state and followed up with a barrage of events in every corner right up to the election.
For a few days at least during two of those years, Colorado was the center of the political universe — when the Democrats nominated Obama at Denver’s Pepsi Center on Aug. 27, 2008, and when Obama and Romney met for their first debate of the 2012 campaign at the University of Denver on Oct. 3.
But it wasn’t those events — and the massive media presences they brought with them — that put Colorado into the campaign’s spotlights.
Colorado was not only viewed as a crucial swing state during the 2008-2016 stretch, it turns out it actually was the “tipping point” state in two of them. That’s according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who came up with the concept of the state that provides the winning candidate a majority in the Electoral College, something Colorado did for Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 elections.
It wasn’t always so.
Colorado was considered a reliable Republican state for most of the previous several decades, voting for the GOP nominee all but once during the 44-year span since LBJ’s 1964 landslide, typically by convincing margins. Republicans won six Colorado elections in a row from the late 1960s to the late 1980s — Richard Nixon by 9.2 points in 1968 and 28 points in 1972, Gerald Ford by 11.5 points in 1976, Ronald Reagan by 24 points in 1980 and 28.3 points in 1984, and George H.W. Bush by 7.8 points in 1988.
The anomaly was in 1992, when Colorado voters threw the state’s electoral votes to Bill Clinton by a margin of 4.3 points. That’s when Reform Party candidate Ross Perot nabbed 23.3% of the vote, performing well enough to boost the Democrat in a three-way race with the first President Bush.
In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole from neighboring Kansas barely beat Clinton in Colorado, by just 1.4 points, but by 2000, Colorado had swung back into the red corner, handing a win to George W. Bush by 8.4 points.
The next time, both Bush’s reelection campaign and Democratic nominee John Kerry targeted Colorado in 2004, nudging it a bit closer to true swing state status, due to a combination of shifting demographics and the Democrats’ all-out efforts. (That was the year the Democrats took majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the fist time since the 1960s, following a coordinated campaign described in the book “The Blueprint.”)
By 2008, there was no question Colorado had landed in the battleground column, though as Election Day neared, every forecaster predicted it would hand its electoral votes to Obama, who had accepted the nomination at Invesco Field at Mile High. And that’s what happened, with Obama sailing past Republican nominee John McCain by 9 points.
But Colorado didn’t turn blue without a fight and plenty of campaigning on both sides, ushering in the busy campaign schedules that voters came to expect for the next couple cycles, including one of the largest crowds assembled for a speech that year when Obama addressed more than 100,000 people in Denver’s Civic Center just over a week before Election Day.
The next time, Obama won Colorado over Romney, the Republican nominee, by a slimmer margin — 5.4 points — on the heels of both nominees spending so much time in the state they might have qualified for temporary residency.
In 2012, Obama campaigned in Colorado a total of 14 days, while Romney racked up 13 days in-state. After Labor Day, Romney held events in Denver, Pueblo, Morrison, Colorado Springs and Englewood, where he made a stop just three days before the election at Fiddler’s Green.
The Republican’s stop in Morrison also featured vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan — who attended 13 events in Colorado from the time he was named Romney’s running mate — for a picturesque rally at Red Rocks Amphitheater on Oct. 23 that included the musical stylings of Kid Rock.
Obama followed up the next day, drawing an even larger crowd to Denver’s City Park, one of six rallies he held in Colorado after Labor Day. On the Sunday before the election, Obama filled a quad at the Community College of Aurora for a rally that began near midnight and featured a performance by ’90s crooner Dave Matthews.
The 2016 race was a bit closer, with Democrat Hillary Clinton carrying the state by 4.9 points over Republican Donald Trump, whose victories in Pueblo and Las Animas counties marked the first time a Republican had won either since Nixon’s 1972 landslide.
By the 2016 campaign, the Democrats were already starting to spend less time in Colorado, with Clinton holding just one event in the state after Labor Day and touching down for a four-stop swing in early August. Trump, on the other hand, held nine rallies in Colorado after Labor Day, including two in Colorado Springs and three in the Denver area, following four earlier events in July and August.