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What does Colorado's political future hold?

Colorado voters by the numbers


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  • Data from Colorado Secretary of State's Office

For the past 20 years, Colorado has been slowly transitioning from red to blue. Some say the state is still purple. Others might characterize it as a "periwinkle." It's difficult to determine just how blue the state is because in headstrong, free-willed Colorado, unaffiliated voters still outnumber the registered members of either major political party. And while most of those party-passers are what election observers call "closet partisans," they aren't easy to tie down.

Consider a little history. In 2008, Colorado cast over 215,000 more votes for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama than his Republican rival John McCain. They also chose Democrat Mark Udall over Republican Bob Schaffer for the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Republicans blew a chance to take the governor's mansion when they nominated unpopular Republican Dan Maes for the post after an ugly primary, and Democrat John Hickenlooper walked away with a victory. Likewise, Democrat Michael Bennet retained his seat in the U.S. Senate. But Republicans did rack up wins at the state level, shifting power to conservatives in the House of Representatives where they won a one-seat majority.

In 2012, Obama won Colorado again, the state approved recreational marijuana use, and Democrats took back control of the state House, giving them total dominion over state politics, since they already held the state Senate and the governor's office. But incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives — four out of seven of whom were Republicans — retained their seats. The 2014 election gave Hickenlooper another four years, but it also saw Republican challenger Cory Gardner win the U.S. Senate seat held by Udall. Republicans also won more seats in the Colorado House and took majority control of the state Senate.

Eric Sondermann, a Denver-based independent political analyst, says that Colorado has never been a particularly partisan state, so while the state leans blue, there are likely to be some surprises on future Election Days. "I anticipate ... at least for a good while, this state is likely to be rather evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliateds," he says.

And unaffiliateds, he says, "tend to go in the prevailing direction of that particular year."

With that in mind, the Secretary of State does keep figures on voter registrations by political party that show how party affiliations have changed in the state since Obama was first elected. The numbers aren't kept in an ideal fashion. Generally, when talking about voters, it's best to look at active voters — those who have been deemed most likely to vote. But the state doesn't list "active voters" by party in 2008, though it does so in every year following. And a 2013 law also changed the definition of "active voter," making it difficult to do apples-to-apples comparison from 2010 to 2016.

(Prior to 2013, there were two categories of inactive voter: those who the government had attempted to mail something to only to have it returned as undeliverable and those who had signed up for a mail ballot but failed to vote in a federal election. After 2013, only those with returned government mail were listed as inactive, a change that switched about 1 million voters to the active rolls, according to State Election Director Judd Choate.)

But here's a snapshot: In 2016, the state has over 1.17 million Democrats (over 998,000 active), nearly 1.15 million Republicans (nearly 993,000 active), and over 1.34 million unaffiliateds (over 1.08 million active). But the growth clearly favors unaffiliateds and Democrats. Between 2008 and 2016, Colorado registered Democrats grew by 11 percent, Republicans by 7.9 percent and unaffiliateds by 25.3 percent.

That trend held up in conservative El Paso County, which is still dominated by Republicans. There are over 180,000 registered Republicans in El Paso County (over 154,000 active), over 98,000 Democrats (nearly 80,000 active), and over 161,000 unaffiliateds (over 125,000 active). But between 2008 and 2016, registered Democrats have grown by 15.4 percent, unaffiliateds have grown by nearly 33. 5 percent, and Republicans by just over 8.8 percent.

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Political Science Professor Joshua Dunn says of the uptick in Democrats, "Well, it certainly fits with the overall trend in the state of Democrats winning elections."

But, he notes, you have to watch out for those unaffiliateds, many of whom might as well be Republicans, especially in El Paso County.

Sondermann, though, says he thinks the state is becoming reliably blue, due to a mix of factors, including in-migration and the Republican Party's shift away from "the live and let live psychology of many Colorado voters."

The numbers reveal a few other interesting trends. Libertarians, the largest third party in the state, are still a small portion of the electorate (over 40,500 members statewide, with over 34,000 active), but they have grown steadily over the past eight years, and at an astronomical rate. Statewide, the party grew 270 percent in that time period, while in El Paso County it grew 398 percent (to about 6,000 members, 5,000 of whom are active).

Both Sondermann and Dunn say that growth is likely caused by rifts in the Republican party, particularly on social issues. Dunn says the legalization of marijuana may have led some to the Libertarians, while Sondermann points out that as Republicans lose more elections some voters might see little reason not to align with a party that more closely reflects their views.

There are also interesting ups and downs in registrations. For instance, statewide and in El Paso County, both Democrats and Republicans lost voters in 2014, while unaffiliateds continued to gain.

Choate says the occurrence may have been a result of voters falling off the rolls after failing to vote in 2010 and 2012 — a theory supported by the fact that 2008 attracted many first-time voters.

In any case, the trend reversed in 2016, with both major parties gaining voters by October, while unaffiliateds were down slightly. Dunn and Sondermann agree that the recent attraction to the parties is likely due in part to the exciting presidential caucuses as well as the polarizing influence of Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Dunn predicts that Trump won't be good for the Republican Party in Colorado, where the type of conservative candidate that can pull off an unexpected win has the personality of, well, Cory Gardner. And that could only contribute to a general decline in Republican power across the nation, Dunn says — a decline that seemed unlikely until Trump came around.

He notes that while Obama has held the White House these past eight years, Republicans nationwide have been doing "quite well" at winning state and local offices, which is generally a sign of future success at the national level.

"You have to think," he says, "this arrests that progress."


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