With little available public polling we don't have a compelling statistical basis on which to make this prediction, but we believe the Colorado caucuses are shaping up to be a duel between Governor Mitt Romney, who won a sweeping victory here in 2008, and Senator Rick Santorum, the surging conservative who has nailed down key endorsements from key conservatives across the state.
Romney, no surprise, has the superior organization here in Colorado. He's worked hard to cultivate support and that promises real dividends on Tuesday night, but Santorum, more so than Gingrich, has capitalized on Romney's inability to close the deal with the base.
In garnering the endorsements of grassroots favorites like Tom Tancredo and Bob Schaffer, Santorum has positioned himself to soak up much of the anti-Romney vote. His endorsements are heavy on a Northern Colorado contingent, including CD4 CU Regent Sue Sharkey and Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, and he spent most of Saturday campaigning in Loveland and Greeley. Those endorsements and time spent could hint at a strong base of support in Northern Colorado, tapping into the section of the state where Ken Buck ran up the biggest margins of victory in the 2010 US Senate primary.
Santorum has crisscrossed the state hitting small communities and hot pockets of conservative voters in the same way he did in Iowa. At eight events by Sunday, Santorum leads all other candidates for Colorado campaign visits, combined. And we believe that the results of that effort will be a strong showing on Tuesday.
Newt Gingrich was leading the Colorado polls when Democrat pollster Public Policy Polling (PPP) surveyed the state in early December, whooping Romney by 19 points. PPP's most recent poll — just the results from the first day were released yesterday — show Gingrich slipping to third at 18%, Santorum surging into second at 28% and Romney atop the field with 40%.
Gingrich's campaign has been trying to downplay the results in Colorado, with Gingrich CO spokesman Tom Lucero calling the caucuses a “dog and pony show” that doesn't directly impact delegate selection, which Gingrich has said is his main focus now.
Ron Paul's campaign has been the only one to open a formal office in the state, which has been operating since November in the Stapleton neighborhood of Denver. While expectations were initially high for Paul, he has underperformed recently in caucus states, especially ones that are closed to non-GOP voters, like Colorado.
As Michael Sandoval of Peoples Press Collective notes, PPP's first day results show 33% of Colorado voters saying they could still change their mind before Tuesday's caucus. That large chunk of undecideds will mean campaign organization is even more important, as last minute contacts from campaign volunteers and the candidates themselves can still swing large amounts of votes.
Santorum's sudden rise is giving credence to his argument that it is he, and not Gingrich, who is best suited to be the conservative alternative to Romney. PPP's poll shows Santorum with the highest favorability with 68% of voters seeing him favorably to 21% with a negative opinion. He is also polling strongly in Minnesota and Missouri, the other two states voting on Tuesday.
As Newt Gingrich isn't on the ballot in Missouri, Santorum will get his shot there to take on Romney, one-on-one.
Romney's campaign recognizes the sudden threat of Santorum, holding their first press call hit on Santorum this morning for his earmarking habit while in the US Senate.
For Romney, a big win in Colorado will bolster his argument that he is strongest in states that are key in November. His ability to deliver a substantial margin of victory will also further enhance his frontrunner profile and deafen arguments that voters are still searching for a Romney alternative.
Romney is not taking Colorado for granted, holding a campaign rally in Centennial tonight and one in Loveland tomorrow morning, as well as visited the state on Saturday in Colorado Springs for a quick event before shuffling back to Nevada for his Silver State victory speech.
While we are not prepared to make any specific predictions on the final results, we do feel comfortable saying one thing: Colorado precinct caucuses are finally going to count, so get out and vote.
Check back at the Peak for the latest Colorado caucus results as they come in on Tuesday.