Colorado’s Independent Streak
(October 15, 2013)
Independents make up 36% of all registered voters in Colorado, making the most popular political party in the state none at all. The 1.2 million registered voters in the state who have resisted membership in either of the two major political parties wield considerable power in general elections. Office seekers for statewide office must get support from Unaffiliated, or “Independent” voters, to win and no ballot initiative can hope to pass without receiving strong support from Independents.
Independent voters proved key in Colorado’s recent recall elections that sent two Democrat state senators packing and in a new initiative to recall a third. As we head into the 2014 elections, it is high time to take a closer look at Colorado’s Independent streak.
The charts and information below are based on registered voter statistics as reported by the Colorado Secretary of State.
Red + Blue + Indie = Purple?
The chart below illustrates how Colorado’s 3.1 million voters have chosen to register by party affiliation. Colorado voters have split themselves roughly 1/3 each among Republicans, Democrats and Independents.
The relatively equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the state has tempted many a commentator to describe Colorado as a “purple” state, the political color one gets when mixing together blue Democrats and red Republicans.
The “purple” analogy, however, breaks down when the majority of Colorado’s electorate does not belong to either the blue or red political brands. Given that the majority of Colorado voters are Independents, that purple becomes a rather light hue.
In fact, the majority of Colorado’s voters been unable to join either of the two major political brands and make the inevitable issue compromises that comes along with party membership. With 36% of Colorado voters registered as Independents, both Democrats and Republicans are in the minority, which has profound implications for legislation and at the polls. Colorado’s growing Independent majority also confounds partisan efforts to turn the state definitively “red” or “blue”, keeping Colorado a swing state.
Colorado’s Independent Women
Women are a critical constituency for any candidate, but as we re-discovered in the recall elections, not all women think the same. The charts below illustrate how the sexes have registered by party affiliation.
The first chart illustrates the numeric advantage Democrats have with women voters, who make up nearly 60% of the Democrat party and only 49% of Republicans. As a result, many Democrats would have you believe that they speak for the majority of women in the state.
Yet, they would be only partially right. Although almost 60% of the Democrat party is composed of women and has the greatest number of registered women voters at 650,885, just over 64% of all registered women voters in Colorado have chosen a political affiliation as something other than Democrat. Although women dominate the Democrat party, by any numerical measure Democrats do not come close to representing the majority of Colorado women.
Turning our attention to the Independents, the pie charts below better illustrate the state’s electorate by gender.
Core to Colorado’s unique electoral composition are the state’s Independent women, 34% of who have decided not to join either of Colorado’s two major political parties. Consequently, Colorado’s women voters do not fall neatly into the progressive liberal blue or conservative red that partisan leaders on both sides might have us believe. In this year’s Democrat-dominated legislative session, urban liberal women assumed that women in the suburbs and southern Colorado thought just like they did on the issue of gun rights, but they were mistaken.
As we discussed in Part 7 of the blogumentary Shooting Down Gun Control in Colorado, in The Federalist blog, Mollie Z. Hemingway described why the “War on Women” theme failed to help state senators Angela Giron and John Morse fend off recalls as much as their supporters hoped it would. A national poll by NBC/Wall Street Journal showed that 65% of women favored stronger gun laws, as compared to 44% of men.
But, nationwide polls are not representative of the sensibilities of Colorado voters. For example, as Hemingway pointed out, a Quinnipac Poll of Colorado voters from August showed that women in the state favored stricter gun laws, but only by a 48% to 45% margin, a much narrower result than measured in the nationwide polls.
The reason is simple. A lot of women in Colorado like to shoot guns and view protecting gun rights as protecting the right to self defense. As Hemingway wrote:
“In other words, in Colorado, while gun control isn’t necessarily a women’s issue, gun rights is a women’s issue.”
Does the Denver-Boulder Corridor Rule Colorado?
Debates on controversial bills during the 2013 legislative session exposed a rift between urban and rural Colorado. Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed every bill coming out of the Democrat-controlled legislature, including new renewable energy mandates and unpopular gun bills that have a disproportionately negative impact on citizens living in rural counties.
The impression left on many, especially rural Coloradans, was that the levers of political power in the state were controlled by progressive, left-wing Democrats along the Denver-Boulder metropolitan corridor.
Taking a closer look at the data in the chart below, we find that the counties in the Denver-Boulder corridor are home to 1.3 million registered voters, or approximately 38% of the statewide total. Based on this chart, however, one would tend to believe that rural voters might hold the edge.
If we look at urban and rural voter registration data by political affiliation in the chart below, Democrats, Independents and Republicans make up 40%, 36% and 22%, respectively, of the voters in Colorado’s urban counties. Indeed, Democrats have the edge in the Front Range urban counties.
The chart below illustrates the core of the Democrat party’s strength along the urban Front Range. Women voters in Colorado’s urban counties have registered as 45%, 33% and 21% Democrat, Independent and Republican, respectively. To win in Colorado’s urban centers, candidates need the votes of women Democrats.
In comparison, almost 40% of men who live in the Front Range urban counties have registered as Independents. The chart below illustrates this phenomenon. Men in counties forming the Denver-Boulder urban corridor have overwhelmingly registered as Independents, except for Denver County which stands out as the lone exception with 41% of men registered as Democrats, although Independents come in second place.
Democrats may have the edge along the Denver-Boulder corridor, but that advantage overstates the power of urban Democrats statewide. To put things in perspective, the 531,510 Front Range urban Democrat voters amount to only 15% of all voters in Colorado, and urban women Democrats make up only 9% of all voters in the state.
The Colorado Legislature – Up For Grabs
Statewide and county statistics can tell us alot, but they do not mean anything if voting districts are drawn to establish a “safe” district for a particular party, resulting in a predetermined outcome at the polls. Many rural Coloradans suspect that the “fix is in” with Democrats holding many safe seats from which they can impose their political will upon the rest of the state. With that thought in mind, we took the next step and analyzed the composition of registered voters by senate and house voting district.
The chart below illustrates which political affiliation holds the majority status in Colorado’s 65 house and 35 senate districts.
These results came as a bit of a surprise to me. Given the Democrat majorities in both the state house and senate, one might have expected most voting districts to lean Democrat. Yet, that is not the case.
There is no “fix” in the legislature. Independent voters make up the majority of voters in over a third of Colorado’s house districts and in 15 out of 35 senate districts (43%). However, there is no “Independent” political party for these unaffiliated voters to participate in, as they are excluded from the partisan caucus primary system and only vote in general elections.
Voters Running From the Two-Party Duopoly
As pointed out in the Rise of the Independents blog post, extremists in both the Republican and Democrat parties have purged centrists from their parties in the interest of creating more ideological purity. They have in large part accomplished their goal in Colorado.
While voters are running away from organized political parties, the party faithful in both the Democrat and Republican parties are running to the polar extremes. A poll run by veteran Colorado political pollster Floyd Ciruli illustrates this development. On his blog, Ciruli wrote:
“Both Colorado political parties are dominated by their most ideologically intense members, producing the dramatic legislative swings from the Republican House in 2012 to the Democratic House in 2013.”
Ciruli makes a cutting insight into the divisiveness of Colorado’s politics with this comment from his blog:
“Democrats effectively used the slogan in the early 2000s that Republicans were only interested in guns, God and gays while the economy languished and problems piled up. Today, are Democrats vulnerable to a similar charge; that is, are they mostly focused on guns, gays and more government?”
It used to be that liberals represented a certain faction of the Democrat party and right-wing conservatives were just one Republican voice among many. Today, what used to be the fringe elements of the two parties have now become their primary constituencies. When asked how they can gain more political influence, the answer given by partisans on both sides is that they need to become more extreme, either progressive or conservative, to present a clear choice to voters.
The numbers, however, demonstrate that ideological purity has not been an effective strategy for increasing political influence, at least not in Colorado. The chart below illustrates voter affiliation numbers for the months of August in 2008 (when Barack Obama won his first term), 2012 (Obama’s reelection) and 2013 (immediately before the September recalls).
Here are the takeaways on voter registration between August 2008 and August 2013:
- Democrat registrations increased by 16.2%, driven primarily by a 15.4% increase from 2008 to 2012 when voter registration drives associated with Barack Obama’s historic campaign added 146,739 voters to that party’s database. The jump helped narrow the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the state, but Democrat gains since then have been more modest.
- Republican registrations increased by 9.2%, and statewide, Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats by the narrow margin of 14,015 voters.
- Independent voters increased a whopping 24.7%, more than double the Republican increase and more than 1.5 times the rise in Democrats.
- Independents as a percentage of total voters in Colorado have steadily risen over the years and were 33.8%, 35.1% and 35.9% in August 2008, August 2010 and August 2013, respectively.
- Democrats as a percentage of the electorate have remained fairly steady at 31.6%, 31.6%, and 31.3% in August 2008, August 2010 and August 2013, respectively.
- Conversely, Republican membership as a percentage of Colorado’s electorate has been on a slide at 34.1%, 32.4% and 31.6% in August 2008, August 2010 and August 2013, respectively. Of note is that between August 2012 and August 2013, Republicans actually lost voters, with 5,892 dropping off Republican rolls.
What extremists in both major political parties can not seem to come to grips with is that the policy priorities on which they have chosen to differentiate themselves are the very things that make them unattractive to Independents.
Additionally, I suspect the path to achieving greater political strength is not simply a case of the two major parties educating people, repackaging their ideologies or communicating better. By now, most registered voters know exactly where the two parties stand on key issues and time has demonstrated that their ideological platforms and messages are ineffective in getting a decisive number of Colorado voters to join their ranks.
If the trends say anything about partisan politics, it is that the majority of Colorado voters reject both progressive and conservative dogmas. As a result, the political physics in Colorado are such that any partisan, ideological legislative action will create an opposite and equal electoral reaction at the polls. Meaning, hyper-partisan legislative agendas are likely to swing Independents to the other side of the political spectrum in the next election.
Purging centrists from the parties may make like-minded partisans feel better when they are rubbing elbows with each other at caucuses, fund raisers and state political party conventions, but that has not translated into political strength. Consequently, partisan priorities today have less political legitimacy than if the parties were more inclusive.
Independents Loom Large in National Trends
Colorado is not the only state in the union with large numbers of Independents. Massachusetts, Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island all have significant numbers of Independent voters who chose not to join either of the two major political brands. Charlie Cook opined in the National Journal about the growing number of independents in key states and had this to say about an influential NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:
Something that might be of concern to Democrats, however, is that in this year’s data, Independents are tilting Republican by 18 points, 43% to 25%. This is even more than the 14-point edge that the GOP had in the 2010 polling (40% to 26%) and dramatically different from the 1-point Democratic edge in 2012 (35% to 34%).
Democrats in Colorado are facing a similar situation in light of governor Hickenlooper’s failure to veto any bill coming out of the Democrat-controlled legislature as he heads into a reelection bid in 2014. His signing into law unpopular gun bills, failure to stand up to the legislature and some questionable decisions has opened a window of opportunity for Republicans.
If history is any guide, Republicans have the edge in 2014 assuming Independents break their way. Given the influence of Independents, however, Colorado Republicans would be wise to learn the lessons of the last legislative session and the recalls. To win, they will have to demonstrate that they are a party that will govern for the benefit of all Coloradans, not just conservatives. Given the trends that Ciruli points out, however, this will be very hard to achieve.
Lessons Learned – What Good Governance Looks Like From The Middle
Political strategists, consultants, elected offcials and commentators on both the blue and red sides are telling us how to interpret the September recall results. They have their partisan reasons for explaining away the recall losses, or over-reading the wins, as the case may be. Here is an independent view of what good governance looks like from the middle:
- Controversial bills must have bi-partisan support if laws are going to stand the test of time and be complied with by the public. Without considering the legitimate views of the opposition and securing votes from opponents, the potential for continuous re-legislating, recalls, legal battles and outright ignoring the law will be the result.
- If one party has control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, then at least in Colorado the majority party should take care not to overplay their hand. With Independents as the largest voting group in the state, a hyper-partisan approach is likely to lead to backlash in the next election as Independents will swing the political pendulum in the other direction.
- When in power, do not dismiss the concerns of people who look different or share differing opinions, especially if those constituents are passionate about an issue. The process must be inclusive and respectful of opposing views, even if you do not like them.
- Partisans should be especially careful not to mis-read a “win” as the same thing as being granted a “mandate”. How many times have we heard victory speeches when a candidate claims he or she has won popular approval to move forward with a partisan agenda? In a diverse political landscape like Colorado’s, electoral victories are more often the result of voting against the extremists of the past session more than they are about voting in favor of one party’s platform.
Progress on the issues important to all Coloradans requires cooperation and dare I say it, even compromise, yet both are in short supply today.
Give Independents a Say – A Modest Proposal
The political cards in Colorado are stacked to disappoint everyone. Neither Democrats nor Republicans hold anything close to a commanding majority of the state’s electorate. Both parties have become more ideologically pure, but as a result are increasingly out of step with the rising tide of the majority of Colorado voters who are Independents. A focus on partisan ideological priorities has led to division and narrow legislative victories that are likely to be reversed when Independents swing the pendulum back the other way. Consequently, everyone is likely to be disappointed and this is no way to make progress.
Currently, Colorado employs the caucus system for political primaries, which favors the most motivated and ideologically extreme candidates. I know, I participated in the process in 2008 sitting in a middle school lunch room at the precinct level convincing my neighbors to elect me and send me to the next level. That journey led me to the district caucus and eventually the state convention.
That journey taught me that for many, caucus participation often means taking time off from work, spending time away from family, missing children’s events, etc. Only the most committed, and partisan, tend to participate and they tend to choose like-minded candidates. Once in office, exremist lawmakers are unprepared or unwilling to work with the other two-thirds of Coloradans that do not belong to their party. Centrists need to be brought in earlier in the process so candidates on both sides are more representative of their districts.
This writer proposes Colorado adopt open political primaries, as was the case in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Governor Bill Owens in 2003 signed a law eliminating primaries and instituting the caucus system. Caucuses are run by the parties themselves and cost the state nothing, whereas primaries do cost taxpayer money.
Albeit at greater cost to the state, opening primaries to Independents in Colorado would have a moderating impact on primary races and ensure that candidates consider the political sensibilities of a wider range of voters from the start. Open primaries would give Independents, who are critical in statewide races and in over a third of house and senate districts, more say earlier in the process. The result should be greater legislative focus on the issues important to all Coloradans and improved satisfaction with state government.
Until then, lawmakers in both political parties should heed the lessons learned from the last legislative session and this summer’s recall elections. Ignore Independents at your political peril.