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December 22, 2014 01:49 PM UTC

Top 10 Stories of 2014: Colorado's Two-Headed Electorate (#10)

  • by: Colorado Pols

How many fingers am I holding up?

Today we kick off our annual list of the "Top 10 Stories of the Year" in Colorado politics. We start, appropriately, with #10: Colorado's Two-Headed Electorate.


The 2014 Election was unlike the 2012 Election in Colorado.

You don’t need to be a rocket surgeon to have come to that conclusion, but the 2014 Election did indeed confirm a suspicion that arose following the results of 2012: There are two distinct electorates in Colorado.

In 2010 and 2014, Colorado experienced similar results to states around the country as part of a Republican “wave” election (though you can argue that 2014 wasn’t really a wave year, but that’s another subject for another time). In fact, Colorado post-election 2014 looks incredibly similar if not for the collapse of Republican Ken Buck’s Senate campaign in the closing weeks of 2010. This might be understandable as a trend if we ignored Presidential election years, but there’s no question that Democrats were stronger at the polls in 2008 and 2012.

It is not a groundbreaking theory to suggest that Colorado has two different electorates that vary from Presidential to mid-term election years, but in 2014 we saw the extension of a very distinct pattern in Colorado that dates back to President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Perhaps this pattern will break in 2016 with a different group of Presidential candidates, or perhaps this is a new modern reality in American politics. Everything we’ve seen suggests the latter. Here's why:

Former President Ronald Reagan, left, and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill in the 1980s.

All Politics is National
The old saying that “all politics is local” probably goes back for generations, though it was popularized by former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) during his 1982 re-election campaign when O’Neill demonized his opponent, Frank McNamara, as being out-of-touch with his home district. O’Neill frequently mentioned that McNamara’s campaign was heavily financed by oil and gas interests in Oklahoma and Texas; today it almost seems quaint that a voter would be offended by out-of-state corporations getting involved in a Congressional race.

Today, we still see political science professors and local news reporters repeating Tip O’Neill’s quote as a truism (cue live shot of TV reporter saying, “It just goes to show that all politics is local – back to you in the studio!”), but Norman Rockwell couldn’t paint you a picture of this actually happening on a meaningful level this year.

The 2014 Election was largely about the popularity and policies of a person who wasn’t even on the ballot: President Obama. Republican TV ads repeatedly claimed that Democratic Sen. Mark Udall voted with President Obama 99% of the time – a nonsensical claim given that President Obama doesn’t actually cast votes in Congress – and the message worked all the more as Udall went out of his way to avoid being seen with the President.

But it’s not just about the President. The most oft-repeated messages were about issues that aren’t going to be decided locally: Abortion, ISIS, Ebola, Obamacare, immigration reform, etc. These are the issues that dominate the news cycle – in part because of the continual demise of local news outlets – and the easiest foil is always going to be the President and the political party he represents. Whenever Republicans felt like changing up their attack, they used former Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as their example instead (although this worked a lot better in 2010, when Pelosi still had the Speaker’s gavel).

Most of our news consumption also involves national and international issues, so campaigns inevitably focus their messages around topics that voters are more likely to understand. If you are a Republican, it is infinitely easier to say that “Mark Udall = Barack Obama” than it is to elaborate on why Udall is worse than Cory Gardner – particularly when voters don’t really know a Udall from a Gardner anyway.

Retail Politics Replaced by "Closet Campaigns"
During his 2012 Presidential campaign, Republican Mitt Romney made numerous visits to Colorado – but rarely did he appear anywhere near the Denver Metro area. Romney would pop up in Craig or Grand Junction, but never even as close to the Metro area as Colorado Springs. Avoiding the most populous areas of Colorado – and the Denver media market – became a story in itself as the Election wound to a close (even former State GOP Chair Dick Wadhams admonished Romney’s campaign for avoiding Metro Denver). Romney relied on paid media advertisements to spread his message along the Front Range so that he could avoid difficult questions (and potential unflattering stories) from veteran journalists largely concentrated in the Denver metro area; Team Romney had better control of venues and narratives if they stuck to small towns with crowds populated by reliably conservative supporters.

Two years later, where did Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner spend most of his time from mid- to late-October? In small, rural areas of Colorado that were more difficult for statewide reporters to access and thus easier to avoid tough questions. Gardner’s constant ducking and dodging of direct questions began to really irritate the Colorado media by October (witness Eli Stokols’ infamous Gardner interview, or 9News reporter Kyle Clark preemptively lecturing Gardner in a debate question about Personhood), so Team Gardner locked their candidate away in a car (or closet) and let paid media do the talking for him. Many of Gardner’s positions on issues were vague, inconsistent, or incomplete, and he sure as hell didn’t want to try to elaborate under a regular barrage of media queries. Once you tell enough lies, it gets difficult to keep track of your own story — let alone to try explaining it.


Colorado 2010, 2012, 2014 voters
(courtesy Hilltop Public Solutions)

Colorado Has Two Voting Groups: A Presidential Electorate and a Mid-Term Electorate
If everything we just wrote is true, then how did Gardner end up winning the 2014 Senate race? Why did following in the footsteps of Romney not give Gardner the same results as the failed Presidential candidate? There are multiple responses to those questions, but the easiest is this: There are two different electorates in Colorado.

Cory Gardner understood this, which is a big reason why he decided to make his bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014 against Mark Udall. Gardner could have waited to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016, but a Presidential election brings out more voters than a Mid-Term and nationalizes the election to an even greater degree. Presidential elections are the last true election in America where both Democrats and Republicans have to explain why they are a better choice, instead of taking every opportunity to throw rocks at the sitting President and convince voters that their choices will validate (or invalidate) the current Presidential Administration.

Take a look at the chart at right (courtesy Hilltop Public Solutions), which we discussed previously when looking at the 2014 election results as a whole. As we have discussed, Democrats demonstrated once more in 2014 that they have outmatched Republicans when it comes to voter turnout operations — they just don't have the same consistency in their voter base that Republicans enjoy.

Again, this isn't a new theory in Colorado politics — many others have previously suggested that Colorado has a different electorate depending on the year — but the 2014 results allow us the opportunity to examine the last four Election Cycles side-by-side. In 2014, Republicans did a better job of persuading voters to support their candidates, but Democrats turned out enough votes to nearly make up the difference in the U.S. Senate race. Gardner was a better candidate than Ken Buck in 2010, but the difference is small when you look at the final tally (the margin of victory in both the 2010 and 2014 Senate races is less than 40,000 votes).

We don't want to suggest that future election results are somehow preordained based on whether or not it is a Presidential election year, but 2014 clarified Colorado's two-headed electorate to a much greater degree. We can bicker about when this particular trend first emerged. We cannot dismiss the argument in general.




6 thoughts on “Top 10 Stories of 2014: Colorado’s Two-Headed Electorate (#10)

  1. I wouldn't dispute anything in this article. I do think, by itself, it provides an inadequate explanation for 2014. For instance this analysis begs the question: Why was Governor Hickenlooper–in a statewide race that was subject to the same 'nationalized' attacks–less vulnerable to those attacks than Senator Udall? 

    I think we can hypothesize a number of explanations, but the three that make the most sense to me are that 1) Governor Hickenlooper wasn't as close to national decision-making as Senator Udall, 2) that Governor Hickenlooper withstood those attacks because his character profile (affable, willing to compromise and committed to positive campaigning) made it into the media (MSM, social and paid) and/or 3) Governor Hickenlooper did a better job of messaging on the core issue of jobs and the economy. Those hypotheses are supported by many other national, state and local examples both past and present.

    So, again, I don't dispute the above analysis, but I think the situation was more dynamic than the general explanation that "the president and his policies were unpopular and his party paid the price."

  2. Many CO Dems seem quite sanguine that Colorado is a "purple" state.

    I think that gives to many of our politicians a pass when it comes to issues crucial to the Middle Class and Working Poor (and there is a think green line between those groups).

    Also think that there could be more of an effort to reverse the Red Tide in El Paso County that was greatly enhanced by the arrival of Focus and the incredible expansion of New Life. Both those institutions are shadows of their former bosses. The comedic, abject and tragic failure of Republican politics is out in the open here for all to see. 

    Democrats need to highlight it and mock it and shame it.

      1. Westboro Baptist Church hated the Mr. Rogers character, and show, because Rogers never denounced "teh gay". With the really little kids in Rogers' audience, one should only discuss sexuality in the most minimal terms: "Some people are fancy on the inside – some are fancy on the outside" – so it's hard to see what WBC's gripe was. I guess that they don't like "tolerance".

        Fun fact about the late Fred Rogers:

        The one time in memory that Rogers’ Zenlike serenity publicly snapped came in December 1998, when he filed a lawsuit in federal court in Pittsburgh over a Texas novelty store chain’s sale of T-shirts displaying Rogers’ photo with a superimposed handgun and the slogan, “Welcome to my ‘hood.” Rogers didn’t just want the stores to halt sales — he demanded that the shirts be destroyed.

        As the NYT memorial article stated, of the two "Freds" (Rogers and Phelps), Mr. Rogers gentleness and caring will endure, while Phelps will mercifully fade into the oblivion of those whose "religion" is hate and fear.

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