More than 1.1 million voters cast ballots in Colorado’s midterm election Tuesday night, or roughly 35 percent of the state’s active voting population. For context, in the 2016 primaries, turnout was 21 percent — and that was during a presidential year, but unaffiliated voters couldn’t participate.
Now that the initial numbers are in, what do they show so far— and what could they mean for November?
As of the figures this morning, 468,403 Democrats voted versus414,375 Republicans. Unaffiliated voters cast 290,785 ballots.
The high-water mark for Democratic ballots cast in Colorado was around 325,000 in 2010, so this year’s primary saw a significant jump just by the raw numbers. But for context, a whole lot more Democrats have also registered since then. In the fall of 2016 Democrats overtook Republicans among active registered voters for the first time in 30 years.
As for the way Democrats voted on primary night, “That’s significant,” and it’s “not a good bellwether” for Republicans in November, says David Flaherty, a Republican pollster who analyzes voter data. “Democrats clearly were energized more so than Republicans.”
But Rick Ridder, a Democratic consultant and pollster who did work for Polis and wrote a book titled “Looking for Votes in all the Wrong Places,” says numerous political pundits have gone to their grave analyzing the turnout differentials between parties in primaries. When it comes to the general election, though, he says, those numbers are “largely meaningless.” In other words: Don’t get too comfortable for the fall, Colorado Democrats.
This primary election year, with two female Democrats on the ballot in the top race for governor in Colorado, women who voted in the Democratic primary made up the largest voting block in the election.
As of the latest results from the Secretary of State’s office, 354,248 women cast ballots for Democrats, out of 1,158,700 ballots cast— making up a total of about 30 percent. (These numbers are preliminary as more ballots are still being counted.)
“Women are leading the resistance,” says Micha Rosenoer, who leads Emerge, a group that supports women running for office in Colorado. She cited studies that show a majority of activists who are making phone calls to their elected officials and attending rallies are women. Nationally, she said, out of 36,000 women running for office across the U.S., a majority are also new candidates who are running as Democrats.
“This is really a response to aggressive and horrible policies coming out of the right, and women are demonstrating that they really are the ones committed to creating change in their communities and in our government,” she says.
In Colorado, she said, three out of seven Emerge-backed candidates— Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Rochelle Galindo, and Monica Duran— won their primaries in legislative races. “It’s no surprise that those women are all incredibly smart and strategic Latina leaders,” Rosenoer said. “I think the party is ready for a change and women across the ballot, besides in the governor’s race, did exceptionally well and I expect that to continue.”
What Kelly Byrne, the Colorado director for America Votes, found notable in the numbers was a significant spike in participation from millennial women here. They made up approximately 6.7 of the vote share in the 2014 primary and about 9 percent in the 2016 primary. This year? Millennial women made up nearly 15 percent of the female Democratic primary, she said.
Though the gender gap is remarkably wide compared to the Republicans, where it’s basically zero, that’s typical in Colorado elections, says Flaherty, the pollster, adding that historically 60 percent of the Democratic vote is female.
This year was the first in which Colorado’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters could choose to mail in a Democratic or Republican ballot. They couldn’t choose two, and if they mailed in both, their votes were rejected and there was nothing they could do. Rejected ballots made up a total of about 2.2 percent statewide, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
While we still don’t know how about 45,000 unaffiliated voters swung because all the counties haven’t yet reported, we do know that out of the roughly 285,000 who cast ballots, a majority of them chose to vote in the Democratic primary— by a margin of about 50,000.
Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Eric Walker said the robust turnout among Democrats and unaffiliated voters choosing Democratic ballots shows that voters “are clearly signaling that they want a Democrat who will continue to build on Governor Hickenlooper’s success, and reject the Trump-Stapleton agenda.”
Unsurprisingly, Colorado Republican Party spokesman Daniel Cole has a different take. Unaffiliated voters breaking more for the Dems, he says, might be explained because Democrats had more hotly contested races than Republicans.
“The Democratic attorney general and the gubernatorial primary was tighter,” Cole says. “It would make sense that unaffiliated voters would prefer to participate in those primaries that are hot rather than those primaries that are not.”
The political reality of this new data on unaffiliated voters is that from now on candidates and their campaigns will pay attention to indy voters in a way they have not in the past. The identities of these voters and which party they chose are now public information.
“If you’re a Democrat or a Republican you would mine them now,” says Colorado pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli. “You would know who turned out in which category and you might look for some additional ones— but at least you start from this base.”
During the 2016 campaign to persuade voters to let the unaffiliated masses vote in party primaries, some backers of the law said one outcome of a massive injection of the state’s non-party people into the primary voting stream would produce a moderating effect on the candidates. Others said the types of unaffiliated voters who would cast ballots might be the kind who are so extreme on the left or right that they believe the parties don’t represent them.
Curtis Hubbard, a partner at OnSite Public Affairs and the lead consultant to the Let Colorado Vote Campaign that year, says the point of the initiative was about fairness and participation.
“There’s this misnomer that there was a promise that it would moderate and that’s just simply never anything that we promised,” he said. “I would never believe that it would— I’m not that naive. … the idea was, could it? Yes. We never made that case.”
What’s more important to look at is the participation rate, he said. “That you got 20-some percent of unaffiliateds is a positive,” he says. “Any time more people participate in an election is a positive.”
Kent Thiry, the wealthy CEO of the Denver-based kidney dialysis company DaVita who financially supported the ballot measure and has become a champion of unaffiliated voters being involved in Colorado’s political process, lauded the turnout.
“This was a great day for Colorado’s citizens and Colorado’s future,’ he said in a statement. “Over a quarter-million engaged citizens were able to vote as independents, and now are a formidable voice that will help shape policy in our state for decades to come.”
When it comes to the age groups in Colorado’s voting trends, the majority of all voters were between 41 and 60, just by raw numbers. That was followed by voters aged 61 to 70. Voters between 18 and 25 made up the smallest number of votes cast. Women in that group out-voted men by just a few thousand.
Lizzy Stephan, director of New Era Colorado, a group that seeks to mobilize young people to participate in the political process, says the vote share of those 18 to 25 in this primary is about 4.58 percent so far. “That’s about the vote share we saw in the 2010 midterm election itself (not the primary) so we were pleased with that,” she said via email. “We wouldn’t have expected a share on par with what we could see in the fall.”
As for who voted in that age group, she says so far the biggest raw showings was from young Democrats, followed by young unaffiliated voters, followed by young Republicans.
In conservative El Paso County, about twice as many Republicans voted in the primaries than Democrats. No surprise there. But talk to Democrats in Colorado’s Trump country and they’ll tell you about the big unaffiliated voter population in the county and how many of them might lean Democratic. Now we have numbers to test that hypothesis.
In El Paso County, unaffiliated voters swung to the right. Out of 23,237 unaffiliated voters who chose a ballot there, 13,477 picked a Republican one. So nearly 10,000 more unaffiliated voters wanted to vote in the GOP primary. That county, it should be noted, had a wide and hotly contested Republican primary for Congress where four candidates were trying to unseat incumbent Congressman Doug Lamborn, who coasted to victory amid the splintered field.
One unaffiliated El Paso County voter posed this question to The Colorado Independent in an email earlier in the election season:
“Everyone knows the Republicans pretty much own the county. So the Republican primary will decide local winners. General election is an afterthought. One party rule seems to result, here, in mediocre representatives and lack of substantive debate. One always hopes to be surprised. There must be other counties like this in the state. And other unaffiliated voters, like me, must be asking themselves similar questions. If I vote in Republican primary, will my unaffiliated vote for a candidate, who has no chance of winning the congressional seat, send a message for future elections? Should I try instead to pick a compromise Republican candidate, better chances for victory, perhaps only a slight improvement over present, toothless incumbent? There are other local offices, where my vote might make a real difference. Or should I vote in Democratic primary, because I favor one of the Democrats for governor?”
In Boulder County, an area known as a liberal stronghold, unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly snagged Democratic ballots— by about 10,000.
In Jefferson County, one of the nation’s swingiest counties, unaffiliated voters there swung left by about two to one.
Democrats in Colorado are likely to point out that while each party’s nominee for governor faced three primary challengers, Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis won 43,528 more votes than Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton.
The mathematical caveat is that more Democrats across Colorado voted in the primaries period. And, says Ridder who did polling for Polis, the congressman started out the race with 30 to 35 percent statewide because of a solid political base, especially in his district. Spending more than $11 million of his own money on TV ads, voter targeting and turnout obviously didn’t hurt. But he also ran in a more competitive primary than Stapleton, facing a current Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, a former statewide elected official in Cary Kennedy, and a well-known and well-funded former state senator from Denver in Mike Johnston. Polis also carried Denver County, the political home base of all three.
Stapleton ran against a first-time candidate in Doug Robinson, a largely unknown political figure who was a mayor of a Denver suburb in the 1990s in Greg Lopez, and Victor Mitchell, a businessman whose last political foray was a decade ago— though he spent $5 million to make his case. Says Cole, the state GOP spokesman: “Walker was seen as the runaway favorite.”
Polis got about 44 percent of the vote in his election, and Stapleton earned nearly 48 percent.
Speaking to a group of Republicans in El Paso County two days after the election, Stapleton called it “good news” that Polis spent about four times more than he did and earned a smaller percentage of the vote. “So that tells me that there’s an intensity problem of support for him even amongst … Democratic primary voters,” Stapleton said.
THIS STORY WAS UPDATED AFTER FRESH NUMBERS CAME IN