Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan makes his way through the crowd shaking hands and greeting attendees individually after his speech at Island Grove Regional Park in Greeley, Colorado on November 1, 2012. Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is criticizing President Barack Obama's suggestion of creating a secretary of business.
In Colorado, polling shows that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are still neck and neck. Both campaigns are fighting for every vote, and held campaign events only 50 miles apart Thursday.
In the morning, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan visited Greeley, a city of almost 93,000, where local county commissioner Sean Conway warmed up the crowd. By the time early in-person voting ends today, the secretary of state estimates that 80 percent of voters will already have voted, either at the booth or by mail. Conway asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had already voted, and said, “Well, then, I have another assignment for you.” The crowd laughed when someone asked, “You want us to vote again?” Conway laughed, and said no. “We’re Republicans. We follow the law, right?”
Conway was joking, but it’s a slip that says a lot about what’s happening in Colorado. Obama won by nine points in 2008, but in a deeply red part of the state like Greeley—a meatpacking center where roads are lined with silos, feedlots, and fracking rigs—voters believe Obama’s election was illegitimate. They see his presidency as the result of big city shenanigans and voter fraud down in Denver and Boulder. The fears were bolstered when the state’s Republican secretary of state accused as many as 11,000 non-citizens of voting. (His investigation turned up far fewer potential voter problems.)
When Paul Ryan finally arrived, rolling up with his wife in a giant white bus to speak at the Greeley Independence Stampede rodeo arena, he reinforced that theme. He mocked the president for saying he’d appoint a Secretary of Business—Obama said in an interview Monday he wanted to consolidate several agencies under one new secretary—decried the fact that 47 million people are on food stamps—but not the fact that 47 million people are hungry—and the 15 percent poverty rate. He praised self-determination and free-enterprise system as the engine that would solve these problems, not the government. “That’s the spirit of the Midwest, and that’s the spirit of the West,” he said. But the phrase he most often repeated was more temporal than spiritual: “Five more days,” he kept saying. It started to sound like a prayer. Local Republicans are working hard to put their state in the R column this time around, and the crowd was amped to see Paul Ryan, though a toddler in the back kept cryingperhaps in sympathy with Abigal Evans.
A few hours later and 1,000 feet higher into the Rockies, a crowd of 10,000 people began filing into the University of Colorado’s gymnasium. Obama had planned a visit for earlier this week that was unsurprisingly canceled due to Superstorm Sandy. (Ryan canceled appearances last week, too.) When he arrived at about 7:40, there was standing room only, and the crowd was already giving him a standing ovation. As red as Greeley is, Boulder is blue: it has the flagship campus for the state’s university system, and is home to government-funded science laboratories, tech firms, and clean-energy companies. Neither side was working to get new votes with these rallies: they wanted to fire up their bases and catch local headlines. Boulder, along with Denver, went heavily to Obama in 2008 because both cities are full of the growing slice of the American electorate so favorable to him—young, Latino, African American, and college educated. The question this year is how big the turnout among these groups will be, and whether it can swamp the suburban voters disappointed by the past four years that Obama is likely to lose.
Obama spent a lot of time touting his own accomplishments—clean energy credits, expanded student loans and grants, and health care—which earned much applause from the crowd. He spent the rest of the time listing his challenger’s faults, namely that a Mitt Romney administration would return to the same economic policies that caused the financial crisis. “Giving more power back to the biggest banks, that’s not change,” he said, when someone in the crowd called out “chump change.” It turned into an organic chant punctuating every point Obama made.
Obama’s most important task, though, was to give a speech as rousing as his 2008 campaign events were, and, if the reaction in the audience is a good guide, he got close. Ryan’s event was much smaller and more subdued; the Romney campaign is relying on dissatisfaction with the president here, not excitement. The biggest challenge Obama faces to win Colorado this time around is getting his natural constituency to the polls, and he told the crowd as much. He told them the opposition’s strategy since the beginning of his term was to obstruct so much that voters would be worn down to the point they wouldn’t even show up this November. “Their bet is on cynicism. They’re counting on you not voting,” he said. “That’s their entire strategy. But Colorado, my bet is on you. My bet is on the decency and good sense of the American people.”
He told the crowd that the country’s most powerful don’t need another advocate in Washington, and promised he would be theirs, to grow the middle class and protect their interests. “That’s why I need young people to turn out. That’s why I need you to knock on some more doors,” he said. “If you turn out for me, if you vote for me, we’ll win Colorado again, we’ll win this election, we’ll finish what we started, we’ll keep moving forward.” Turns out he had some favors to ask, too.