Throughout the series First and Main this election season, Morning Edition is traveling to contested counties in swing states to find out what is shaping voters' decisions.
The series started in Florida and the hotly contested county that includes Tampa, then continued to a county in Wisconsin that voted twice for George W. Bush and then swung to Barack Obama.
Renee Montagne just spent a few days in Colorado's Larimer County, which, after a run of favoring Republican presidential candidates, also switched to Obama in 2008. This fall's presidential race in Colorado is a dead heat.
We arrived in Colorado on a late summer afternoon. In the distance, dark purple thunderheads were building up, rolling in over dry brown fields. As we drove north from the Denver airport to Fort Collins, lightning flashed brilliantly in the rear-view mirror.
Despite what looked to be a fair amount of snow on the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, it's been a dry summer for Colorado, marked by devastating wildfires and extreme temperatures. Almost everyone we talked to — from people we met on the plane to our various interviewees — seemed excited about the coming rain.
Even in a normal year — one not marked by dry weather — Colorado gets more than 300 days of sunshine. That plus the beautiful landscape attracts outdoor enthusiasts and adventure-seekers. It's the healthiest state in an increasingly obese nation; it's also one of the youngest and one of the most highly educated. Additionally, the Latino population — 20 percent of the state's total population as of the 2010 census — is rapidly growing.
Fort Collins, where our reporting took us, is the home of Colorado State University, with about 26,000 students. The school sits adjacent to the older part of town, bounded on one side by College Avenue, essentially the main drag of this college town. Just a few blocks off campus, shops and restaurants and bars line the street. It's a picturesque place — so much so that it served as the model for Disneyland's Main Street.
Fort Collins is also the seat of Larimer County, one of just a handful of swing counties in this battleground state. Colorado's nine electoral votes are up for grabs. One-third of the state's voters are Republican, one-third are Democrat and one-third are unaffiliated — and it's that unaffiliated vote that has the presidential candidates returning to the state again and again.
Both President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited the state in August, and just last week Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, held a town hall meeting in the small rural community of Timnath, east of Fort Collins.
Historically, both Colorado and Larimer County have trended Republican, but they're both becoming more purple: In 2008, the county and the state voted for Obama.
We met a number of people who are likely to vote for Obama again, but there are others who are disappointed with how the past four years have gone. Both candidates will have another chance to convince Colorado voters Wednesday evening, when the first of the debates is held in Denver.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here at MORNING EDITION, we've been traveling several paths of our own this election season to America's Main Streets in contested counties, in swing states to find out what's shaping voter's choice for the White House.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're listening to people think. And we began in Florida, the hotly contested county that includes Tampa. Then we went on to Winnebago County, Wisconsin, which voted twice for George W. Bush, and then swung in 2008 to Barack Obama.
MONTAGNE: I've just spent a few days in Colorado, in Larimer County, which after a run of favoring Republican presidential candidates, also switched to Barack Obama in 2008. Now the presidential race in Colorado is statistically tied.
INSKEEP: Well, we've been calling our series First and Main, after the intersection where our series began.
MONTAGNE: And here's the thing: Fort Collins does not, in fact, have a corner of First and Main. But imagine another Main Street, a Main Street you might actually have visited, the one in Disneyland. It was modeled on Fort Collins. That's because Disney's designer grew up here, and for Main Street, he copied its original Victorian city hall, the old bank, the hotel, and other buildings all along downtown to create a quintessential Main Street America.
The actual main drag in Fort Collins is College Avenue, where I'm standing right now. It runs along Colorado State, founded in 1870 as an agricultural college. And this is where we'll meet a man who happens to know a lot about Colorado, political science Professor John Straayer.
JOHN STRAAYER: Mining was what really attracted folks initially - gold, and then later on silver, with the silver mines - and then agriculture on the Eastern Plains, and ranching in particular on the Western slope. Colorado, in more recent years, we've had the influx of an awful lot of high-tech stuff. Hewlett-Packard is located right here, for example, in Fort Collins. So it's been industrialized, expanded government involvement, and more recently, it's been energy: oil and gas - so from the days of gold and silver to a modern, industrialized and highly diversified economy.
MONTAGNE: We're sitting in a classroom in Colorado State's political science building. John Straayer is open about his own political leanings. He's a registered Republican, just last spring honored by the state's House Republicans, but counts himself a moderate. It doesn't surprise him that this year's race in Colorado is among the tightest in the nation.
STRAAYER: I've looked historically from statehood forward, and it's amazing the balance between the parties. There are eras when one party dominates, but if you look at the number of Democrat versus Republican U.S. House members, senators, governors, and even years served since statehood, it's amazingly even.
Here we are today. Again, it's amazingly even. The voter registration numbers now are almost a third, a third, a third, if you look at all the registrants. The big jump in the last few years has been in unaffiliated registrants, the independents.
MONTAGNE: But what about these presidential contests? What are the two candidates up against when it comes to Colorado? Let's start with Mitt Romney. What would be his strengths and what are his challenges?
STRAAYER: Well, I think his - regionally, his strength is going to be the rural area. In two counties in particular, he'll do very well, and one is El Paso County, where you've got a mix of the military and the evangelical voters, and Douglas County. Douglas County is one of the fastest-growing counties. It's the wealthiest county in the state. It's new. It's growing.
MONTAGNE: What kind of wealth?
STRAAYER: People who work in finance, in banking, to some extent in technology, oil and gas. His challenge is to turn them out, turn them out, turn them out.
MONTAGNE: And then what about President Obama? And in his case, what has changed from 2008?
STRAAYER: I think it's the enthusiasm gap that everybody talks about. He was a novelty, in a way: an African-American, a spellbinder. We had the Democratic Convention here in Colorado. That drew an awful lot of attention. Obama was a fresh sheet of paper that you could write on. I mean, it's as if everybody went to the movie. It was the opening weekend of the movie. Now who wants to go see the movie again?
MONTAGNE: So, but seeing as how he is still leading in Colorado and has a...
STRAAYER: Slight lead in the polls.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, so, it could go either way. But what kinds of Coloradans are going to go for him? I know the Latino population has grown.
STRAAYER: The Latino population has grown in the last decade from 14 percent to 21 percent.
MONTAGNE: And that's pretty dramatic.
STRAAYER: That is dramatic, and that is critical. Now, they underperform in terms of turnout, relatively overall population, but I think that's going to up this year.
MONTAGNE: Could it all hinge on that?
STRAAYER: Yes, it could. It could hinge on that. I mean, I'm not saying it will hinge on that, but I'm saying it could. If this is a very close vote, very likely, it will be the Latino vote that made the difference.
MONTAGNE: And we'll be hearing from people Larimer County who want their votes to make a difference on a range of issues in this last part of our series, First and Main. At the end of our conversation with John Straayer, I asked him to step away from what other Coloradans are doing politically, to step away from being a professor and tell us what he thinks, what he feels is the most important issue in this election.
STRAAYER: We're defunding our colleges and our universities. There is resistance to taxation for infrastructure. You certainly see this manifested in the rigid position the Republicans have taken where it's no taxes, no taxes, no taxes.
What we have done collectively, successfully in this country with everything from land grants to build railroads to building an interstate highway system to supporting our vets with the GI Bill, those have all been public investments that have enabled private successes. I see that eroding.
Can Obama get it back? I don't know. But if we don't turn that around and repair it, I think we've got some real problems down the line. Yes, the debt's a problem, and we've got to do something about it. So the issue that is of concern to me is to have a party in place that has an interest in helping us recreate a sense of the importance of collective effort. So, will I vote for a Republican right now? No. Have I in the past? Yes.
MONTAGNE: That's John Straayer, who teaches political science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where tomorrow we go to a Republican rally and an energy-conscious brewery for our series First and Main.
INSKEEP: Also tomorrow, of course, Denver, Colorado will host the first presidential debate, and we will have full coverage here on MORNING EDITION over the next couple of days.
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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.