WTFs About Donald Trump and Colorado Election 2016: An Expert's Answers

Political analyst Eric Sondermann offered educated guesses the week before Tuesday's big vote for our post headlined "Who and What Will Win in Colorado's 2016 Election: An Expert's Predictions" — and as we noted in our followup piece, "Who and What Won in Colorado Election 2016," his accuracy was highly impressive, unlike that of most pundits.

So when it came time to figure out the basis for assorted victories in Colorado — including the defeats of amendments T and U, about an antiquated constitutional slavery mention and an obscure tax matter, respectively, and the passage of amendments 71 and 72, concerning rules for amending the constitution and a tobacco tax — as well as Donald Trump's surprising defeat of Hillary Clinton in the national presidential race, he was clearly the best man for the job.

Fortunately, Sondermann doesn't want for opinions. Among his takeaways: Colorado still has more of a Republican slant than many observers thought.

As we reported, Amendment T called for the removal of a reference to slavery in the Colorado Constitution that reads: “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” However, as Sondermann acknowledges, the ballot-measure language was poorly written in the extreme; a "yes" vote was required to remove the language, as opposed to a "no" vote. Amendment U, meanwhile, called for the elimination of a tax on government property valued at under $6,000, since collecting it often costs more than what it brings in.

Logically, both of these measure should have sailed through. So why did they fail?

"There was no advertising," Sondermann notes, "so all voters were left with were the words on the ballot in front of them — and the words were a double whammy. They were so legalistic and confusing that a lot of voters didn't know whether yes was for no or no was for yes on Amendment T, and they didn't understand Amendment U at all. And when voters don't understand something, the default vote is always a no vote."

In contrast, Amendment 71, aka Raise the Bar, which imposes tough new rules to qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot, and Amendment 72, an added tax of $1.75 on each pack of cigarettes, inspired commercials aplenty. The pro-71 forces, including multiple fracking-happy oil-and-gas firms, were represented in the spots by Broncos legend John Elway, while the tobacco industry spent more than $17 million to defeat 72.

The results show that big investments can still pay off at the ballot box even in the age of Trump, who used free media rather than a TV blitzkrieg for much of his campaign.

"Trump certainly rewrote the rules of how to get elected president," Sondermann concedes. "But I've long thought money becomes more important the further down the ballot you get. At the presidential level, voters are bombarded by cues 24/7. But when you get down the ballot to rather obscure issues, voters don't have that much information — they don't receive as many cues. Therefore, advertising is much more important. There are some voters out there who read the blue book or might read a random newspaper story to learn about a ballot issue. But for most of them, ballot issues are a second thought. It's not something they've thought a lot about until they sit down at their kitchen table to fill out their ballot."

Completing this task should be quicker in the future thanks to Raise the Bar, which virtually guarantees that only the wealthiest advocates will be able to win ballot approval for future amendments.

"It's was already an expensive game before Raise the Bar," Sondermann says. "But Raise the Bar will increase the cost and require a further professionalization of the operation. And it will be a greater deterrent to any grassroots efforts, although the proponents of Raise the Bar say that horse has already left the barn, and they're not without rationale."

As for Trump, Sondermann correctly foresaw him failing to best Clinton in Colorado. But nationally, he says, "no one had an effing clue what was going on."

That's not unprecedented, he goes on. "In a divided country — a narrowly divided country — elections tend to be close, but they take on the tenor of the year. And the tenor of the year is determined not by a party necessarily winning big everywhere, but by a party winning a lot of races narrowly. You saw that in 2010 with the Republicans and U.S. Senate seats across the country, and again in 2014 with the Republicans and the U.S. Senate. They weren't blowout wins. They were narrow wins, but they were a whole bunch of narrow wins."

Still, Sondermann maintains, "the whole polling industry — and I'm not a pollster, I"m not part of that — is going to come in for a lot of questions. And the biggest is how they pick their sample in an era of caller ID and junk calling. When we see an 800 number or a number we don't recognize, we ignore it or we hang up on it."

There's also what Sondermann sees as a secondary factor, known in the politics biz as "The Bradley Effect."

"It dates back to a gentleman named Tom Bradley," he allows. "He was the mayor of Los Angeles in the early 1980s, an African-American, and he ran for governor of California. All the polls showed him being elected by a three-, four-, five-point margin, but he lost. Now, that was a different era; racial tensions were different than they are now. But that said, most analysts attributed what happened to people telling pollsters a politically correct answer and then getting into the privacy of the voting booth and going another direction."

The late-breaking Trump windfall fits this model, in Sondermann's opinion.

"I always suspected that if Donald Trump was even or within one vote on election day, he would win based on a modern-day corollary of the Bradley Effect, where people were giving pollsters what they regarded to be the politically correct answer and then doing something different. And in this case, perhaps the effect was more than one point. Maybe it was a couple of points."

The Clinton campaign may have also unwittingly assisted in this process, Sondermann continues. "It looked like Clinton and Clinton's people were taking a victory lap within the last few days before the election, even with the leak of Joe Biden possibly becoming Secretary of State. There was an air of the Clinton people starting to measure the drapes. And I think one of the unwritten stories of this campaign was the impact of the Obamacare premium increases that were announced in late October and the open-enrollment period that began on November 1."

Even so, Sondermann says, "when the country wants to make a statement, it's hard to deny the country that statement. And from the get-go — from the first Republican debate more than a year ago — this has been an election about change, and Hillary Clinton was always going to have a tough time in a change election. She might have been able to survive as the ultimate insider candidate in the ultimate outsider year if not for the corruption/impropriety piece, and she might have been able to survive the corruption/impropriety piece if not for the outsider nature of the year. But the combination of the two was too much."

That Clinton was able to win in Colorado showed that she could rise to the challenge in an area friendlier than the Rust Belt — but other results in the state showed that reports of the Democratic Party's ascendancy here may have been premature.

Sondermann points out that the margin of Senator Michael Bennet's victory over challenger Darryl Glenn "wasn't what people expected. Had he been running against a real opponent who was able to wage a real race and appeal beyond his narrow base, it could have been a much more interesting election night for Bennet. And Mike Coffman not only surviving but winning comfortably, and Scott Tipton's race over on the Western Slope, where people thought there might be a Democratic upset and instead there was a fifteen-point margin — well, there wasn't as much red in Colorado as in some states, but the notion that we were morphing from a purple state to a blue state was put to rest."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts