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.
In Arapahoe County to the southeast, the population nearly doubled from 57,000 to 105,000 over the past ten years. Jefferson County, to the west, saw a more modest 45 percent growth rate, but one that mirrored the overall rate of growth in the state.
State Rep. Jim Kerr (R), who represents a portion of Jefferson County, has seen the shift firsthand during his eight years in office and recognizes that it poses a challenge to his party.
"It does put us at a disadvantage," he said. "The population shift has made Jefferson County a battleground county. At one point, it was solid red … Now, it's a mix."
Kerr said that the way the GOP has spoken about the immigration issue has hurt its brand, especially the presence of Tom Tancredo, a former congressman and immigration firebrand. Still, he says that others in the party are working to reach out to the Latino community, especially to socially-conservative voters.
"We're trying to build a better message, to be a big tent party," Kerr added. "We want those values in our party, those family values. We want that respect."
Kerr's sentiment was echoed by Rolando Martinez, a voter from Colorado Springs who said he has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan and plans to support Romney.
"He needs to get a little more involved in the Hispanic community and hold more rallies for the Hispanic community," he said after a Monday-night rally for Romney in Denver that drew a crowd of 5,500.
Martinez, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, also thinks that Romney should have a more accommodating stance toward the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants.
"Do something concrete for the illegals, man," he said. "I'm not saying give them money. Give them amnesty, give them papers, don't deny them a license to go to work, come on."
Romney did take action on immigration Wednesday, saying that he would not deport undocumented immigrants granted deferred action by the Obama administration. And Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call says that the campaign has conducted multiple surrogate events tailored to Latino voters over the past several months.
But Obama still remains poised to win big among Latinos. An impreMedia/Latino Decisions poll showed the president leading Romney 73-24 percent, his largest margin yet this election year, and 61-33 percent in battleground states like Colorado.
Despite those numbers, Democrats know they can't take their Latino support for granted. The unemployment rate for Latinos stands at 10.2 percent and Colorado's unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, just a hair above the national average.
And there is bubbling frustration in the community over the lack of progress on immigration reform during Obama's first term, given that he promised to bring up a reform bill during his first year in office.
"There is a lot of skepticism that either presidential candidate will follow through on his promises," said Christine Márquez-Hudson, executive director of the Denver-based Mi Casa Resource Center, an economic-empowerment organization.
Latino voters in the state are also more inclined to match the state's independent-minded political ethos rather than stay beholden to one party or the other. One-third of registered Latino voters in the state are unaffiliated, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
"Hispanics aren't as willing to affiliate with one party or another because history has taught them that they are likely to get burned when they join a group," said state Rep. Dan Pabon, a Democrat who represents northwest Denver. "Every time you expect Hispanics or Latinos to vote in a bloc and come out, it's never worked out. Whenever you take that vote for granted, it inevitably fails."
While Obama and Democrats have been effective in establishing a base of Latino support and recruiting Latinos to run for office in the past four years, Republicans and Democrats here agree that Latinos could swing the outcome of elections for years to come.
"The question is who will they come out for, said Pabon. "I don't think that necessarily gets resolved in this election."