6:00am

Tue August 28, 2012
Politics

Obama Travels to Republican-Leaning Larimer County to Court Students, Independent Vote

President Barack Obama will hold a campaign rally on the campus of Colorado State University this afternoon.

The focus of the trip—which also includes stops at colleges in Iowa and Virginia—is to attract the youth vote. But the key to winning Larimer County for Democrats will also require capturing independent voters.

Larimer County has attracted a lot of national interest as an indicator of voter attitudes and trends over the last four years. The Republican-leaning area swung Democratic in 2008 electing both President Obama and 4th Congressional District Representative Betsy Markey—the first Democrat to hold the seat in decades.

But that enthusiasm waned in 2010 when Republican Cory Gardner was elected to Congress.

“I think Obama has disenfranchised a number of people, and we’re not just talking independents and Republicans, we’re talking Democrats,” says Devon Lentz,external vice-chair of the Larimer County Republicans.

Lentz says the tone is different this year compared to 2008.

“This is a frustrated energy, not an excited energy,” she says.

Courting the Independent Vote

Right now Larimer County has almost 15,000 more active registered Republicans compared to Democrats. It has just as many unaffiliated voters—about 61,000—as there are registered Republicans.

“Larimer is pretty typical of the state and is a bellwether with regard to watching momentum because it really does have a relatively close partisan balance,” says Kyle Saunders, political science professor at Colorado State University.

Other key counties to watch in 2012 are Jefferson County, which has an advantage of about 15,000 registered Republicans, and Arapahoe County, which has about 9,000 more active registered Republicans. Statewide, Colorado is almost evenly divided in thirds between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

For the Obama campaign to win this county again, it needs to win over unaffiliated voters.

People like Andrea Seabald. She voted for the President in 2008. Since then she opened up the Fort Collins Coffee House along the Mason Street corridor. So far business has been slow for Seabald. But this area is expected to boom in the coming years thanks in part to a $54.5 million dollar federal grant from the Obama administration for a rapid bus transit system.

Andrea Seabald, owner of the Fort Collins House voted in 2008 for President Obama. This year, she hasn't yet made up her mind.
Credit Grace Hood / KUNC

“I know Obama has had a lot of input on small businesses,” she says. “It’s more important to me now just because I’m a small business owner and I wasn’t before.”

Seabald says she’s found it hard to find out what each side actually stands for during this campaign. And getting independents like her to turn up at the polls in November will also be challenging, according to CSU’s Saunders.

“While all these attempts are made by the campaigns to persuade them to come to their side, they’re also a little less involved. They’re also a little less efficacious with regard to how they feel about politics,” he says.

Polling data also suggests that many registered independents are more decided on who they'll vote for than one might think. The Bipartisan polling firm Purple Strategies recently found that only 5 percent of Colorado participants were undecided about who they’d vote for in November.

Building Enthusiasm

Perhaps the most important focus for Obama’s campaigning today, according to Saunders, is that it will energize Larimer County’s Democratic base. And that’s not as easy in 2012 as it was in 2008. Take the Affordable Health Care Act.

“They aren’t sure of how it all works and what’s happened,” says Holly Young, a volunteer at a newly opened Obama for America office in south Fort Collins. “A lot of people’s questions are on health care reform.”

Also a volunteer in 2008, Young says she also gets a lot of question about jobs and the economy. Right now Larimer County has a 6.4 percent unemployment rate compared to Colorado’s 8.3 percent, which mirrors the national average.

“We hear a lot of he’s promised this and hasn’t done that,” she says. “We try to talk to people [and say] if you look at this, he really has done what he’s promised. Or has at least started it and is working on it,” she says.

The Obama campaign is also focusing get-out-the-vote efforts on college campuses like Colorado State University. Young voters supported Obama at near record levels in 2008, which could be hard to replicate this year. According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, the Democratic Party has a wide lead in party identification among Millennials (voters born after 1980). But that advantage has declined from 32 points in 2008 to 19 points in 2012.

However, Andre Foltz, 18, a freshman at CSU who’s an organizer and campaign volunteer for Obama for America, says he hasn’t seen that lower level of interest.

“As 2012 is coming around, I still see the same enthusiasm and support,” he says. “It just depends where you are who you’re talking to.”

With President Barack Obama about to visit the Colorado State University campus, there’s certainly enthusiasm. But there’s also doubt and indecision as a new crop of college voters decide what’s important to them.

Elizabeth Bender, an undecided sophomore, says she is leaning toward Mitt Romney.

“I’ll probably vote, but at this point it’s really rickety,” she says.

Tuesday’s speech will likely be paired with a voter registration push, which could nudge people like senior Sara Thompson more toward Obama, which is where she says she’s leaning.

“It’s still up in the air. I think I really take it down to the last second,” she says.

After stops in Ames, Iowa, and Fort Collins today, Mr. Obama wraps up his two-day campaign swing in Charlottesville Virginia tomorrow.

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