About 39 percent of Colorado's voters aren't affiliated with any one party, and it's this 39 percent of unaffiliated voters that could decide whether Republicans or Democrats will win this fall's Colorado elections, with huge political ramifications that'll extend well beyond our state's borders.
Unaffiliated voters make up a plurality of the vote in the Centennial State, meaning they're the largest single group of voters. About 1.2 million Coloradans are unaffiliated, more than the roughly 1 million Democrats and Republicans apiece. In these increasingly partisan political times, Democrats and Republicans are expected to herd toward their party's candidates, leaving the door open for unaffiliateds to break the political deadlock.
With unaffiliated voters serving as possible tiebreakers, how will they vote this fall? Evidence indicates they'll support Democrats, and perhaps to a higher degree than usual — something that ought to worry Republican candidates, with a little over a month left until the November 6 election.
With June's primaries open to independents for the first time in Colorado, 63 percent of unaffiliateds chose to vote in the Democratic primary, compared to just 37 percent filling out a Republican ballot.
There are a few theories as to why indies overwhelmingly chose Democratic ballots. Democratic primaries may have been more competitive in congressional and state-level districts, pushing unaffiliated voters to participate in those more interesting races. And independent voters turned out in far lesser numbers in June compared to registered Democrats and Republicans, likely meaning only the more motivated voters turned out for the primaries.
According to political experts, this is probably a strong signal that independents may be trending blue this fall.
"It looks like independents that were inclined to vote in the primary tended toward the Democrats, and that's a good sign for Democrats come November if that general orientation maintains itself," says Dr. Robert Preuhs, a professor of political science at Metropolitan State University. "At this point, the data points to a Democratic advantage."
Polling has shown that Colorado's unaffiliated voters don't like President Trump, something that probably helped the Democrats gain that advantage among independents in the June primaries. A University of Colorado poll from January showed about 60 percent of independent voters disapprove of Trump's performance. Perhaps more important, the same poll showed about half of those voters (48 percent) "strongly" disapproved of Trump's performance, while only 11 percent of independent voters "strongly" approved — indicating a huge enthusiasm gap among this sect of voters, which can translate to higher turnout.
It's just one poll, but that massive difference between pro- and anti-Trump sentiment among independent voters matters.
"National independents tend to have lower approval ratings of Trump," Preuhs says. "The big question is whether that will draw folks to the polls. The bigger issue is the extent to which those voters turn out. If they don't turn out, then it's a fairly normal election here in Colorado."
Which races could independents sway? The most likely is the closely watched 6th Congressional District race between Republican incumbent Mike Coffman and Democrat Jason Crow. This district is nearly evenly split between registered Republicans and Democrats, but the plurality of voters here are also independents, and they're often the deciding bloc of votes in this competitive race.
A recent New York Times poll showed independents favoring Crow by a nearly 60-30 margin, a potentially significant boost to Crow's and Democrats' hopes of defeating Coffman, a five-term incumbent who has battled redistricting and high-profile Democratic challengers to stay on Capitol Hill. Coffman has campaigned on being more of a centrist Republican, but Trump's unpopularity among Colorado's unaffiliated voters may weigh down Coffman and others.
"This is the toughest environment Coffman has ever run in, simply due to the Trump drag on the Republican Party," says Denver-based political analyst Eric Sondermann. "And it is a heavy, heavy drag."
Of course, the governor's race between Republican Walker Stapleton and Democrat Jared Polis may well be decided by unaffiliated voters as well, which is partly why most pundits consider Polis a modest favorite. Anti-Trump sentiment could boost Democratic candidates in lower-profile races, too, such as the races for attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer, which are often decided by party identification.
"Particularly in regard to the statewide races, I would put Democrats in the driver's seat," Sondermann says. "Those races — attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer — far more often that not go with the initial after your name. The campaign you run, yes it's important, but it's secondary to what that initial is.
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"Cary Kennedy got elected state treasurer in 2006," he continues. "Was it because she ran some kind of terrific campaign? No. It's because it was a Democratic year, and she was the Democratic candidate. Four years later, Cary Kennedy got bounced out of office by Walker Stapleton. Was it because Kennedy had screwed the pooch and been a lousy state treasurer? No, it's because it was a Republican year, and she had a D after her name."
Ballots will be sent to voters during the second half of October, meaning time is running out for both parties to win over this crucial constituency. Due to a lack of polling, unpredictable turnout levels and candidate variability, there are a number of ways that unaffiliateds may vote, and all is not lost for the GOP in this regard — at least not yet.
But there's little doubt that unaffiliated voters — mostly thanks to Trump — are trending towards Democrats, and that could boost their chances in several key races this November.
"This is a much better year to have a 'D' after your name than to have an 'R' after your name," Sondermann says. "The out party always has more energy, more motivation, more incentive. This year, that is on steroids because of the Trump impact. Democrats are not only in opposition, they're in full-blown resistance. Colorado is a state that went handily for Hillary Clinton by almost five points statewide. Nothing has happened in those intervening two years to pull a lot of those voters in the Trump direction."