DENVER — When Hillary Clinton’s campaign and its allies pulled down television ads in Colorado some weeks ago, it was described as a game-set-match moment in the presidential campaign, a seeming acknowledgment that the state had moved from purple to blue in near-record time.
Make no mistake. Donald Trump is a distinct underdog in Colorado. He’s hobbled by demographic realities here and by a record of statements that have alienated the very groups of voters who will be pivotal in November.
But Democrats here say it’s premature to declare that there has been a permanent shift in the politics of the state. They worry about a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton and warn against complacency born of overconfidence.
Based on late-summer polling, Colorado appeared to be firmly in Clinton’s column — paired with Virginia as one of two state whose politics were shifting rapidly because of demographic changes.
The reasons here seemed obvious. Colorado is rich in the very groups that so far have been most resistant to Trump’s candidacy.
White, college-educated women are tilting decisively to Clinton this year, in contrast to past elections, and Colorado has among the highest percentage of college graduates of any state in the country. In addition, Hispanics make up more than 14 percent of eligible voters and Democrats see Trump with a huge deficit in that community.
Finally, the state has become one of the nation’s most attractive locations for young people, with Denver at or near the top of metropolitan areas favored by millennials — a key part of President Obama’s winning coalition in 2008 and 2012. Clinton advisers say their research shows that Colorado has the most millennials of any of the battleground states.
“I think the polls have narrowed,” said Dick Wadhams, the former Republican Party chair, arguing that Clinton has flaws as a candidate. “But it’s still very tough for Donald Trump to win because of college-educated voters and Hispanics who are reluctant to vote for him.”
Two polls in mid-August showed Clinton leading by 10 and 14 points. Since then, the race has tightened. A Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll taken throughout August showed the race at two points in head-to-head competition at the start of September and a dead heat when Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein were included.
Clinton’s most recent internal polls showed her with a lead of seven points, according to a Democrat briefed on the results. That was a decline of two points from the previous internal survey. A recent poll by the Republican firm Magellan Strategies showed the race at 5 points in a four-way match.
Trump has spent less time here than Clinton and her surrogates, and his investment in ads and infrastructure trails hers. The Clinton campaign has about two dozen offices around the state and paid staff in the neighborhood of 200 people. Trump now has 10 with two more coming and a paid staff of about 50 people.
Trump is counting heavily on organizational work by the Republican National Committee, but his state director, Patrick Davis, acknowledged that Democrats are well organized. “The Democrats here are a well-oiled machine,” he said. “I’ll give them that.”
Still, Trump’s team leaders speak bullishly about the GOP candidate’s potential to increase his support. “She has peaked,” said Robert Blaha, Trump’s state chairman. He said the Republican nominee benefits from growing organic support, with the one big question of whether the campaign can turn voters out.
Even Trump allies, however, say he must prove his steadiness to win over more voters. Steve House, the current Republican chair, said Trump needs to “calm down” and offer reassurance broadly to voters in the state. “He’s got to make it okay to vote for him,” he said.
Davis said Trump must make a more positive appeal to Hispanic voters. “The immigrants in Colorado who have been here for a long time are looking for some certainty and hope that eventually they will be able to become citizens, through some process,” Davis said.
Trump’s many comments on immigration policy have led to confusion as to his exact position about the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Davis said that, at the least, Trump has “started a conversation” within the immigrant community. Democrats believe it’s too late.
Trump is also potentially hobbled by the absence of a competitive Senate race. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who had a tough race six years ago, appears in a strong position. His opponent, Republican Darryl Glenn, won a crowded primary, but his hard-right conservatism and lack of resources have left his campaign sputtering.
Obama won Colorado by five points in 2012 and by nearly 10 points in 2008. Prior to that, Democrats had won just once in the previous seven elections. That was in 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush here with help from Ross Perot, who got 23 percent of the vote.
What could turn Colorado into a truly competitive state for Trump over the next eight weeks is the same danger that Clinton faces elsewhere — a lack of enthusiasm among the voters she most needs to win the election. “The Democratic vote is consolidate [behind Clinton],” said a party strategist. “But enthusiasm is not like it was in 2012 and certainly not like 2008.
Start with Hispanics. A Clinton adviser compared Colorado with Nevada, where polls show a much tighter race so far. The Hispanic community there, the adviser said, has been easier to motivate in past elections than Latinos in Colorado. That means the Clinton team must expend more effort in Colorado to assure the sizeable turnout needed to keep her margin over Trump comfortable.
Young voters also pose a potential problem in Colorado, ironically because of a change in voting procedures that Democrats thought would play to their advantage. Colorado uses an all-mail ballot system designed to make it easier for people to vote.
But Democrats here say that could be a problem for young voters, especially those on college campuses, who communicate electronically rather than through traditional mail. As a potentially nervous Democrat put it, how many have stamps? “The mail-in ballot is a curve ball for us,” said Emmy Ruiz, Clinton’s state director.
Democrats also worry that Trump has the potential to expand his support, in part because his investment to date has been minimal. But that might be as much an effort to tamp down expectations as anything else.
The third-party candidates are a wild card in Colorado. In the Post-SurveyMonkey poll of the state, Johnson and Stein combined for slightly more than 20 percent of the vote. Clinton allies say the third-party candidates are likely to take more votes from Clinton than from Trump.
Priorities USA, the pro-Clinton super PAC, is expected to go back on the air with ads in a few weeks. Clinton advisers declined to forecast when or if they would start a new round of ads in the state. Trump started his ads recently.
State GOP chair House said he’s still confident that Trump can make the state a battleground this fall. But he also offered words of caution about the stakes.
“If Hillary wins this time,” he said, “then we have to start worrying about the trends.”