Trump and Clinton have high hopes for Colorado’s independents

The swing state’s young, unaffiliated voters are a tantalising prize for both campaigns

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Zachary Caradine is the kind of man who appeals to Hillary Clinton. Standing behind the counter at Stony Hill in Denver, the eloquent 29-year-old spends his days selling Strawberry Fields, Green Crack and other kinds of marijuana to locals and to tourists visiting one of the few US states where it is legal to buy recreational cannabis.

Mrs Clinton does not plan to visit the shop when she comes to Colorado on Wednesday. But she will get a lift from knowing that Mr Caradine, one of the many Bernie Sanders fans in this critical swing state, plans to vote for her on November 8.

Colorado has only voted for a Democrat three times — Bill Clinton once and Barack Obama twice — since Lyndon Johnson decimated Barry Goldwater in 1964. While the state has been gradually shifting from Republican to Democratic because of demographic changes, Mrs Clinton needs Sanders fans to capitalise on that trend — particularly as Gary Johnson, the pro-marijuana Libertarian candidate, has a base of young fans in Colorado.

“Gary Johnson will seem more appealing to former Bernie supporters, especially because of his stance on marijuana,” says Mr Caradine. “But I am switching my loyalty to Hillary Clinton to stop Donald Trump.”

The fight for voters is particularly intense in Colorado as over one-third of the electorate, including many millennials and suburban women, are independents. Kelly Brough, president of the Denver chamber of commerce, says the political complexion is changing due to the number of young people flocking to Colorado for work and life balance.

“It is not that they are more liberal or more conservative. What we have noticed is that they don’t affiliate with parties,” says Ms Brough, adding that 67 per cent of new registered voters in 2014 were independent.

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Mrs Clinton and Donald Trump, who campaigned in Loveland and Pueblo last week, are both vying for these voters. The Democrat leads her rival by an average of seven points, but there have been relatively few polls conducted, and the last one had them tied. Mr Johnson has polled as high as 16 per cent but is now at 9 per cent.

Danielle Glover, policy and campaign director for Colorado Young Democrats, says Mrs Clinton has made big strides but must still face obstacles. “There are definitely some challenges, including that Colorado went for Bernie.”

The Clinton team is working hard, and using novel techniques. When Pokémon Go was all the rage recently, they used the augmented reality game to find Sanders fans and engage them in discussion. Meredith Thatcher, a Clinton staffer, said they also held an “Our Colorado” tour where they “opened the door and let people throw rocks at us” to clear the air. “It really helped,” she says, adding that they also have teams on college campuses targeting what was ground zero for Mr Sanders.

Mr Trump is also hoping to win some Sanders fans. Patrick Davis, his Colorado campaign head, says some do not like Mrs Clinton and so are taking a look at the Republican. “I ran into people [in Loveland] who are not registered Republicans who were Bernie Sanders supporters,” says Mr Davis. “There are Trump supporters everywhere.”

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Steve House, head of the state Republican party, says Colorado is ripe for Mr Trump. “Bernie supporters are libertarian leaning because Colorado has a strong libertarian [streak]. Some will lean towards Gary Johnson but more and more away from Hillary.” He sees much enthusiasm for Mr Trump, but says it is hard to tell who will vote. “Many of them are not active in politics, so we don’t know how it is going to play out, but we would rather have them.”

Watching the Trump rally in Loveland on a big screen outside the Budweiser Events Center, a high-school principal named Mike says many people are frustrated with both candidates and the “childlike fighting” that has dominated their campaigns. “This is a party vote because neither person is really attracting voters.”

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One group that both campaigns agree is key is female voters, and particularly college educated suburban women. At a Clinton campaign phone bank in Jefferson, a county of Denver that serves as a good bellwether, Brittany Pettersen, a state representative, says many Republican women are struggling to get behind Mr Trump.

“I talk to women, Republicans, often who say they’ve never voted for a Democrat in their life. But they’re in for Hillary because Trump cannot be the next president,” says Ms Pettersen, adding that they do not like the way he treats women.

The Clinton team hopes that the release of the video showing Mr Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women will help their case in Colorado and elsewhere. Asked how the video would impact support for Mr Trump, Mr House responded: “I have no idea nor do I know how the WikiLeaks email release will affect her. Every day is interesting.”

The Trump campaign argues that women will overlook some of the controversial remarks because they like his broader message. “Unaffiliated women are going to be in charge in the sense that they are the hardest group to convince to vote. They hold their undecided credentials longer than any other group in Colorado,” says Mr Davis. “The overall message that Donald Trump has been saying in Colorado is that your life could be better economically under a Trump administration. That appeals to women, many of whom are the cheque book holder in the family here in Colorado.”

Another group that the campaigns are targeting is Hispanics, who have increased as a share of the electorate, which Tim Malloy, a pollster at Quinnipiac, says is one reason that the state is shifting from Republican to Democrat. Some polls show Mr Trump doing relatively better with Hispanics in Colorado than other states, which David Flaherty, a pollster at Magellan Strategies, ascribes to older Hispanics in rural areas tending to vote more Republican than younger Latinos.

While Mr Trump resonates in the more rural parts of the state, particularly oil and gas-producing areas that have been hit by falling energy prices, and among voters who worry that the Democrats will push for more gun control, Mrs Clinton will do well in the more liberal parts of the state, including parts of the Denver area and college towns such as Boulder. 

“The three issues that Colorado cares about are gas, grass and guns,” says Samantha Walsh, a lobbyist for the marijuana industry who backed Mr Sanders in the primary but who now supports Mrs Clinton.

One issue on the November 8 ballot is whether bars and restaurants in Denver should be able to allow the social use marijuana on their premises. Democrats hope it will drive young people to the polls, particularly since Amendment 64, the initiative to legalise recreational cannabis, got more votes than Mr Obama in Colorado in 2012. 

Ms Walsh says Mrs Clinton would win more Sanders fans if she supported the descheduling of cannabis, which would treat it more like alcohol. “If she really wants to bring a lot of Berners her way, don’t pussyfoot around marijuana and just say she is in favour of descheduling.”

@dimi

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