COLORADO SPRINGS — The last Saturday before the presidential election started like most of Lynn Young’s recent Saturdays, with a visit to a Hillary Clinton campaign office and an armful of voter names. Inside, half a dozen volunteers were sitting for a first, nerve-racking lesson in how to canvass.
Young, 60, was plenty trained already. She had been “all in for Barack Obama” but was just as in for Clinton, the Democratic nominee, happy to sell her to voters in the city’s conservative suburbs. One door opened to reveal a bathrobe-clad young man, whose name was not on the list.
“I’m not Eli, but I’m voting for Hillary,” he said.
Another opened to a woman quieting her daughter and who said not to worry that she had not turned in her mail ballot. “I want to bring my daughters with me to vote,” she said.
“You get to make history!” Young said.
She walked back to her car for more data, past a man walking a small dog.
“You taking a survey?” he asked.
“I’m with the Clinton campaign,” she said.
“Good luck,” he said, eyes rolling.
The skeptical Republican had just seen, and dismissed, the reason Clinton’s campaign is confident that its “blue walls” will withstand the late-game tightening of the polls.
In Colorado, which has not voted for a Republican for president since 2004 or for governor since 2002, a taut local Democratic Party has linked arms with a cautious and free-spending Clinton campaign. The state’s Republicans, divided and outnumbered in voter registrations, are counting on voters to come home; the Democrats are simply counting voters.
Nowhere is the difference greater than in El Paso County. The conservative heart of Colorado, anchored by the Air Force Academy and James Dobson’s organization Focus on the Family, it casts nearly as many votes as Denver does. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney netted nearly 60,000 votes out of 290,175 cast in El Paso County. Two years later, now-Sen. Cory Gardner (R) won the county by nearly 70,000 votes, making up most of his statewide victory margin.
Democrats do not dream of winning the county, but they have played to cut into the red advantage. The field office that Young visited was one of four in the county and one of 30 opened for the campaign’s final stretch — on top of the 32 offices set up months earlier. According to the campaign, 1,000 volunteers have crossed the county and made 8,000 voter contacts; since April, volunteers have knocked on 400,000 doors. In the waning days, the campaign was sending out waves of canvassers from each site.
The Republicans’ campaign was harder to calculate or to see. On Saturday morning, the El Paso County Republican Party office — the only one — was bustling with people working the phone banks who made their calls in front of a flat-screen TV tuned to the Fox News Channel. One volunteer took a break from working the phones to talk about the success she was having making converts on Facebook; another, not far away, whispered loudly that voting machine software is owned by billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros. (It is not.)
First-time volunteers, encouraged to show up for 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. trainings, trickled in. Plenty of canvassers, county chairman Jeff Hays said, were using an app loaded with real-time information about which voters needed to be contacted.
In the first weeks of voting — since 2014, Colorado has voted by mail, and the state reports daily on how many ballots are turned in — the Democrats seemed to have an advantage. That flipped on Friday, but by Saturday, Democrats had returned to a lead they did not have in 2014.
“There was an enthusiasm gap,” Daniel Cole, a Republican strategist based in El Paso County, said on Friday. “Until the latest bend in the email scandal, the wind was kind of out of our sails,” he said, referring to FBI Director James B. Comey informing Congress that new emails related to Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state had been found.
On Sunday, Comey announced that the FBI had again found that Clinton should face no charges.
Still, the gap between strategies is visible everywhere, even at the early-vote rallies the parties have held to close the campaign. On Friday afternoon, former president Bill Clinton made three stops across the state, joined by Democratic leaders. The subject, each time, was how to turn in votes. Every attendee was given a sheet with possible volunteer times, and staff members flitted around to pick them up.
“Get your vote to one of the voting centers and drop it off,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said at a Clinton rally in Denver. “Visit IWillVote.com and visit one of the nearest drop boxes. And then make sure you send an email to everyone you know — everyone who’s not crazy.”
The same day, the campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump sent two of its surrogates, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), to a faith group’s get-out-the-vote event in an Aurora senior living center. There was no one at the door urging people to volunteer. Two boxes of Trump campaign rally signs in the back of the room went largely untouched. In their speeches, Carson, Fallin and state party chairman Steve House focused less on the mechanics of the election than the need to defeat Clinton.
“I heard her talking about religious liberty the other day — this is somebody who helped start a coalition that tried to take down the Catholic Church,” House said.
Despite big victories in 2014, Colorado’s Republican Party has been riven by infighting, the cruelest of it pitting House against state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Her husband, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.), represents a district that covers Aurora. He is one of a handful of Republicans running explicitly anti-Trump ads.
But there was no messaging at the Aurora rally about Coffman’s tight congressional race, which Democrats here view as a toss-up based on the first returned ballots. The contrast, stark on Friday, became starker when Democrats held one of their final get-out-the-vote events Saturday in Colorado Springs.
A line to see Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) at downtown’s Colorado College stretched for blocks. At every bend in the line, Clinton volunteers asked whether the attendees could spend time canvassing; at the door, the campaign offered to collect completed ballots, saving voters a trip to a drop box.
Sanders, at one of his last appearances for Clinton before the election, delivered a 40-minute stemwinder about how “the entire establishment” wanted progressives to stay home. “They say, ‘What are you smoking?’ ” he joked, referring to the state’s legal marijuana. “Well, this is Colorado.”
Just as telling of the Democratic operation, however, was a speech by a former delegate for Sanders, whom Clinton defeated in the Democratic primary. Electra Johnson, a progressive activist running for a seat on the county commission, gave a short speech (with pro-Clinton remarks) before Sanders; her campaign invited interested voters to meet her at a taco shop after the event.
There, they got a chance to join the hundreds of people who had volunteered to walk precincts for Johnson — voters, she said, who would probably add to Clinton’s total. Although the coordinated Democratic campaign had not always helped her, Johnson was laying out specific, local, achievable goals for voters inclined to think that their votes did not matter. And she was doing it in a place where Republicans usually expect to romp.
“We’ve had enough old, retired guys who come in to rewrite ALEC legislation,” Johnson said, referring to the conservative organization that workshops pro-business legislation. “They’re driving the county into a ditch.”