Set against the underbrush of the rolling Colorado foothills, the United States Air Force Academy stands out – all order, protocol and right angles, its lawns mowed with military precision.
But these days, in this swing state, the academy grounds are something of an oasis. You won’t see a political lawn sign here.
Amid America’s election fever, its military institutions avoided the fray – as did towns that built up around them. Colorado Springs is one such place, a city of half a million people surrounded by an army base, air force bases (including NORAD) and the academy, all of which bend over backward to avoid displaying any political inclination (though this county is overwhelmingly Republican).
There was little sign of election day at the academy – just Fox News playing in the visitor centre as cadets parachuted down onto the lawn. In town, polling stations saw no more than a trickle of voters, some in military uniform – a far cry from other states where voting meant an hours-long wait.
Instead, in Colorado Springs, advance voting and the military presence make election day a weeks-long affair. American soldiers can join a political party and give money to it – even put a bumper sticker on their car. But that’s mostly it. A string of rules makes most steer clear of politics. And when they vote, it’s usually by mail in their hometowns, outside the state.
And for those who live here, military or not, election day is only a last resort – Colorado allows extensive advance voting. This year, 1.8 million people (half of the state’s registered voters) cast a ballot before Tuesday. CNN exit polling showed the candidates tied at 48 per cent each. All told, election day wasn’t unusual in Colorado Springs, save for the occasional sighting of an “I voted” sticker.
“We’re a military town,” explained Megan Merrick, 46, a rare outspoken Republican in Colorado Springs. Ms. Merrick works with military families at a local church. They’re waiting to see whether they’ll be reassigned, regardless of who wins the presidency. “They’re really caught in the lurch.”
Colorado’s economy is stumbling. Ms. Merrick is guaranteed just five hours of paid work a week in her job, and voted for Republican Mitt Romney, who she thinks can turn the economy around. “I’m hoping, I’m praying,” she said.
Colorado Springs – with its soldiers, suburbs and churches – is the epicentre of Republican support in this state, but the sands are shifting. Barack Obama won Colorado four years ago. “I used to get made fun of all the time. Now there are a lot more Democrats,” said Colorado Springs resident Stephanie Vitti, 46, a single mother who backed Mr. Obama.
“I’m voting for saving the middle class. Romney’s going to ruin it,” she said.
David Sulsoma, 47, also voted for Mr. Obama and said Colorado Springs is changing quickly. “I’ve seen it go from very conservative to very progressive.”
But Ms. Merrick hopes it’s still, at heart, a Republican stronghold.
“We’ve really seen changes,” she said. “A lot of it’s good. But the last four years? No.”