DENVER – Think of Colorado, the site of this evening's presidential debate, as a fairly accurate picture of what the United States will look like in ten years.
Sweeping demographic shifts in the past decade, particularly an influx of Latinos, have helped turn it from a reliable Republican red state into a purple state where Democrats have begun to thrive.
It was not that long ago that Republicans won Colorado in three successive presidential elections, capped off by George W. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004. But since then the GOP has struggled to find success. During that time, the Latino population here has exploded and more Latinos than ever are voting, usually for Democrats. This year, they will make up 14 percent of all eligible voters in the state, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
To put things into perspective, the state is already more than 20 percent Latino. By comparison, the Latino share of the U.S. population will reach 19.4 by 2020 and 21.2 by 2025, according to Census projections. That means it's becoming impossible for politicians to have success in Colorado at the statewide level without the support of the Latino community. And at this rate, pols may increasingly find themselves in the same position across the country.
This has posed a tremendous challenge for the Republican Party, which at the state and national level has struggled to attract women, young voters, and minority voters this election year. Meanwhile, Democrats have made concerted efforts to appeal to Latino voters during the past three elections, which have paid off in key contests.
"The formula here is about ingratiating oneself to a community," said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio, the first Latino to hold the position. "People have to understand that as a candidate you have to have an entrée into a community and people have to feel as though they can trust you with their vote and with policies they care about."
That approach has worked, so far. Back in 2008, President Obama cruised to a nine-point victory in Colorado over Sen. John McCain, winning the state's Latino voters 61-38 percent amid record turnout. In 2010, things were tighter for incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who eked out a win over Republican Ken Buck with a margin of just over one percent. Polling from Latino Decisions showed that he won a whopping 81 percent of the Latino vote. Without Latino support, it's safe to say Bennet would have lost.
Obama and Romney face a similar situation. Polls show them neck-and-neck, and Latinos could once again play a decisive factor here in November. Like many Western states, Colorado is home to Latino families that can trace their roots back eight, nine generations or more. But the growth fueled by immigrants and Latinos coming from other states is key. Colorado's one million Latinos accounted for 42 percent of overall population growth in the state between 2000 and 2010, according to Census data. Not to mention, Mexican-Americans represent seven in ten eligible Latino voters here, and they're less inclined to support Republicans than Cuban-Americans, or even Puerto Ricans in Florida.
The Denver metro area has seen the most-rapid growth in the past ten years, the state's biggest population center and thus its most fertile ground for voters. But more and more Latinos are making their homes in outlying areas as well.