Colorado’s status as a “purple” state often gets tossed about, and in the battle to tilt the state to Republicans’ and Democrats’ liking, unaffiliated voters are caught in a tug-of-war.
Just how mixed the electorate really is sparks debate in a state that voted for Democrats in the last three presidential elections but where support for President Donald Trump has been high among Republicans. Statewide, active registered Democrats have inched past Republicans, compared to this time two years ago. Democrats now lead with about 994,000 voters to Republicans’ 973,000, whereas the GOP held onto a 3,000-voter lead over Democrats in 2016.
But in the 2018 midterm elections, unaffiliated voters — those who don’t officially identify with a political party — are in high demand, viewed as having the potential to blur the red and blue lines. Unaffiliateds account for roughly 1.21 million of Colorado’s active voters, or 37 percent of the total.
“When you talk to people, nobody’s quite sure what the turnout is going to be this year — that’s part of why there’s so much focus on the unaffiliated voters,” said Matt Crane, Arapahoe County’s clerk and recorder, who oversees elections there.
In a time of increasingly polarized national politics — and even a strongly divided state climate — unaffiliated voters have grown as a group over the last decade, overtaking both major parties as the state’s largest voting bloc.
But don’t count them all as true independents, analysts say.
“I don’t think the impact of the unaffiliated voters will be huge,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. He added: “They tend to act a lot like partisans.”
How much of a wild card the group will actually be is far from certain, but with the loudest voice in the room, unaffiliated voters are under the microscope this season.
Brewing for years
The passing of Proposition 108 in 2016, which allowed voters to participate in a major party’s primary elections without officially aligning with that party, put the spotlight on undeclared voters. But they’ve been quietly gaining for years, Crane said.
“We’ve seen an uptick in unaffiliated registration since 2006 or 2007,” Crane said of the pattern in Arapahoe County. “It goes back that far, where you see people leaving both parties and going unaffiliated.”
Statewide, comparing year-by-year each August, unaffiliated active registered voters surpassed Republicans and Democrats, respectively, by 2013, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.
Frustration with major parties likely plays a role, and Colorado’s state Legislature has been among the most polarized in the country — in terms of how far the parties are from each other in ideology — according to research by Boris Shor of the University of Houston and Nolan McCarty of Princeton University.
“When the choices seem so far apart between the parties, it tends to push people to register as unaffiliated,” said Robert Preuhs, political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
It’s common for millennials to register as unaffiliated, said Crane, a Republican running for re-election in November.
And, as with several facets of Colorado life, high population growth may play a role.
“New migrants from any other state tend to be more likely to register as unaffiliated until they get a sense of how the party operates in their state,” Preuhs said. More hard-line conservative or liberal voters may forgo the caution, he added, but newcomers to the state likely add to the unaffiliated count on the margins.
Even Western individualism may have shaped Colorado’s makeup, Preuhs said, referencing the idea that the Mountain West identity may not fit easily into Republican or Democratic policy positions.
“Relative to other states, Colorado has had a high proportion of unaffiliated voters dating back (a few) decades,” Preuhs said.
Eyes on the prize
Both major parties, in and out of Colorado, are spending money to target unaffiliated voters, Crane said.
“There’s a real science behind trying to figure out how to woo the unaffiliated voters,” Crane said. Television ads, literature dropped at doors and social-media efforts are among the methods used to chase those voters in areas of the state where they’re prominent, and key messages from campaigns can be part of that targeting, he added.
Both parties have their work cut out for them because they’ve moved to further to the left and right in recent years, said Dick Wadhams, political strategist and former chair of the Colorado Republican Party. For example, Sen. Bernie Sanders did well in Colorado during his presidential run, he said.
“But it becomes more difficult to appeal to the more unaffiliated voters” the more that happens, Wadhams said.
To be a Democratic nominee today, a candidate has to lean far left, and Republicans “have to pass the Trump test,” said Eric Sondermann, a Colorado political analyst, while discussing the governor’s race.
“You don’t see (Walker) Stapleton or others deviating much from Trump orthodoxy,” Sondermann said, referencing the Republican candidate for governor.
Judging by the June primary election, Democrats will hope more unaffiliated voters turn out to vote, while Republicans would likely be content with a normal election scenario, Preuhs said.
“Republicans tend to turn out more than Democrats and unaffiliated voters in midterms,” Preuhs said.
In the June primary, unaffiliated voters chose the Democratic ballot over the Republican one by roughly 70,000, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Parties that aren’t in power “tend to have more momentum,” Sondermann said previously. “It doesn’t determine what’ll happen in November, but I’d rather be holding the Democratic cards than the Republican cards.”
On the fence?
It’s popular to point out that unaffiliated voters are Colorado’s largest voting bloc — making up more than one-third of the electorate — but practically, Sondermann said, that’s inaccurate.
“There are many unaffiliated voters that are tacit Republicans or Democrats,” Sondermann said. True unaffiliateds who can go either way would likely make up somewhere around 10 percent to 20 percent of unaffiliated voters, Sondermann guesses — which works out to just under 4 percent to 8 percent of all voters in Colorado.
But they’re still the “gold mine of politics,” he added.
“They’re the group that elected (President Barack) Obama and then switched and elected Trump — elected (Sen. Mark) Udall and then Cory Gardner,” Sondermann said.
Moving the needle
For the midterms, “the big question” is how many in the group will actually vote, Preuhs said.
“Even when they have stable preferences, unaffiliated voters are still less likely to vote” than affiliated ones, Preuhs said.
Their potential to pull politicians to the middle may not be monumental, according to Masket.
“In other states, at any rate, when we see primaries open up to unaffiliated voters, we don’t really see much of an effect on the elected officials themselves,” Masket said. “They don’t seem to become any more moderate, in large part because unaffiliated or independent voters simply don’t vote in very high numbers.”
Whether more unaffiliated voters participating will cause a shift in Colorado politics will take years to become clear, Preuhs said. And even this midterm election may not shed much light — identifying patterns is difficult given the uniqueness of the Trump administration and its influence, he added.
“For the real answers, we’re going to have to see,” Preuhs said. “We need more data to see what shift is going to occur, if any.”
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