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Story highlights

A traditional swing state, Colorado has leaned toward Democrats in 2016

A population infusion has a lot to do with the trend

(CNN) —  

These days, Colorado is less of a battleground and more of a settling ground.

Strike up a conversation with one of the young people teeming around Denver and its suburbs and it’s easy to find a story to back up the numbers: young and educated Americans following jobs or family members or in search of a progressive environment and quality of life have migrated to Colorado. They’re here to stay and to vote.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has, for the most part, maintained a steady lead in the polls. Her campaign hasn’t aired TV ads in Colorado markets since July, and instead diverted its funds to more competitive states.

The state’s turn from red to purple and eventually, maybe blue, has been sudden by political and demographic standards. Colorado was squarely in the Republican column for decades, only awarding its electoral votes to Democrats twice between 1952 and 2004. The state was transformed into a hotly contested battleground when Barack Obama campaigned, and won, in 2008 and 2012.

But Clinton’s strong performance here in polls has relegated Colorado to second-tier battleground status. If she wins here, it would mark the first time in a century that Democrats carried the state in three consecutive presidential years. Woodrow Wilson was president the last time it happened.

Analysts agree It’s too early to talk of permanent political realignment. But Democrats hope Colorado is becoming the next “blue state,” thanks in larger part to an influx of new residents.

“Population on the front range is exploding – that’s where you have more of a concentration of Democrats,” said Lynn Bartels, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Secretary of State who covered state politics as a reporter for decades. “We have San Francisco-style rents here, almost. I walk by parts of the cities that used to be ghost towns and now there’s lines of young people ready to party and go out.”

Colorado has seen steady population growth this decade, and it was the second-fastest growing state last year, according to the US Census Bureau. Millennials, Latinos and people with college degrees are moving here in droves, and these are all Democratic-leaning groups. Their influence shows in the numbers: For the first time in 32 years, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the Centennial State.

Millennials moving in

Whether it’s because of the mountains, the microbreweries or the legal marijuana, Colorado is an attractive place to live. Denver was ranked the best place to live earlier this year by US News and World Report. Colorado Springs wasn’t far behind on the list.

Millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, are increasingly turning to Colorado to begin their professional careers. And these young Coloradans, many of them progressives, are engaged in the political process.

Turnout among Colorado residents ages 18 to 29 was about 14% higher than the national average for young voters in 2012, and about 13% higher in the 2014 midterms, according to information from CIRCLE, a non-partisan organization that researches youth engagement in politics.

This year, Sofia Mazo, 18, will be one of those young voters. She moved from Florida to Colorado earlier this year with her boyfriend so she could attend the University of Colorado Denver and he could pursue a career in health care. She says she’s listening to Bernie Sanders’ advice and voting for Clinton.

“I definitely feel like this is a place I could stay after graduation, mostly because I’m in love with Denver,” Mazo said. “My favorite thing about Denver is not only the diversity of the people and the cultures, but also the geography. It can take me 30 minutes to get to the mountains, 20 minutes to get downtown.”

Sofia Mazo, 18, moved to Denver from Florida and supports Hillary Clinton for president.
Jeff Simon/CNN
Sofia Mazo, 18, moved to Denver from Florida and supports Hillary Clinton for president.

Beyond the economic opportunities, other Millennials see Colorado as a welcoming environment.

Blair Stapp, 28, grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, but moved to Colorado four years ago to work in the sustainability industry. Stapp now works for New Era Colorado, a non-partisan group that promotes political engagement among young Americans. The group has registered 50,000 new voters this year.

“My job initially brought me out, and I then realized that Colorado is a much safer place for me to be LGBTQ,” Stapp said, outside of a liquor store were organizers were registering new voters. “You have a lot of different perspectives, but everybody, or a lot of people, are focused on moving things forward really.”

Colorado legalized civil unions for same-sex couples earlier than the rest of the country, Stapp added.

Driving up diversity

Colorado has the 8th largest Latino population in the United States, and it’s growing too.

Hispanic voters comprised 13% of the Colorado electorate in the 2008 presidential election, and 14% of the electorate in the 2014 midterms, according to exit polls. The Pew Research Center recently estimated that about 15% of all eligible voters in Colorado are Latino.

For many Latino in the Centennial State, this election is important both up and down the ballot. Democrats have razor-thin majorities in the Colorado legislature, and they’ve passed immigrant-friendly legislation, like drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. But those chambers could always flip.

Angel Sanchez, 33, is a progressive activist in Longmont, Colorado.
Jeff Simon/CNN
Angel Sanchez, 33, is a progressive activist in Longmont, Colorado.

Angel Sanchez, 33, was born and raised in Arizona. But he moved to Longmont, Colorado, in 2010 amid the national uproar over SB 1070, what he called Arizona’s “show me your papers” law.

“I got to see the climate get a little intense in terms of the treatment of immigrants,” Sanchez said. “It wasn’t a comfortable space for me to raise my daughter… she was five when I brought her here.”

Sanchez spent his weekend canvassing voters in the Denver suburbs, but not everyone is as enthusiastic about this election. In a food market downtown, Hector Torres, 23, manned the register at a butcher shop. His parents were born in Mexico, he was born in the US and he wants Clinton to win, but says he’s turned off by politics these days.

“It’s like two children fighting with each other,” Torres said. “It’s the lesser of two evils kind of a thing.”

Can Republicans turn it around?

The demographics favoring Democrats are strong, but not inevitable.

There is a winning formula, said veteran GOP strategist Dick Wadhams. He’s managed many prominent races, including the 1998 campaign of Bill Owens, the first GOP governor elected in almost 30 years.

But after Owens’ re-election in 2002, Republicans went on a 12-year drought without a statewide win. It wasn’t until Cory Gardner unseated incumbent Sen. Mark Udall in the GOP midterm wave of 2014.

Gardner won the college-educated vote that year. Colorado has the highest percentage of white, college-educated voters in the country, according to the US Census Bureau. While they are generally supporting Clinton over Trump, this group has historically supported Republicans for president.

“I do think Colorado is still a swing state,” said Wadhams, who is supporting Trump. “It matters who we nominate. Frankly, if we had nominated one of the other Republican candidates for president, I think they would be leading Hillary Clinton by five points or more right now in Colorado.”