Is it too early to start planning for the 2024 elections?
Colorado Democrats don't think so, and the party's leaders want the state to have an outsized say in how the next presidential contest takes shape.
Last week, state party chair Morgan Carroll notified national Democrats that Colorado wants to be considered for early state presidential primary status, potentially replacing Iowa or New Hampshire from those states' customary perch at the starting gate in the nomination process.
Colorado, Carroll wrote in a May 5 letter to the the Democratic National Committee, "is a state that is quite independent and prominent amongst its mid to western neighbors."
Pointing to the similar shares of the electorate occupied by Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, Carroll noted that Colorado lagged only Minnesota in voter turnout last cycle and "has some of the most progressive election and voting laws in the nation."
Added Carroll: "Colorado used to be a red state, and through organizing and hard work we have become a purple state — and a purple state that has recently voted blue. We believe we are a model for where the country can and should go."
Colorado's partisan voters registration hasn't been as evenly balanced as Carroll suggests for a more than a decade, though the maxim that it's "a third, a third, a third" persists. Recent registration statistics show unaffiliated voters account for nearly 45% of the states active voters, with Democrats making up 28% and Republicans trailing at 25%. (The remainder belong to the state's five minor political parties.)
Although Colorado hasn't been pegged as a key swing state since the 2012 presidential election, it spent most of the century in battleground territory, even qualifying in 2008 and 2012 as the "tipping point" state that provided the electoral college voters that pushed the winner — in both cases, Democrat Barack Obama — past the 270 votes needed to claim the presidency.
There are plenty of unknowns more than 20 months out from the start of the 2024 nominating process — most pointedly, whether President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will run again, potentially setting up a rematch of the 2020 showdown. More potential candidates are circling the Republican field, ready to pounce if Trump ends up not running, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence. But plenty of Democrats are also waiting in the wings in case Biden calls it a day, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Carroll's submission follows a decision by a DNC committee last month to solicit applications from states aspiring to be among as many as five designated early primary — or caucus — states in an effort to pry the nomination process loose from the decades-long lock Iowa and New Hampshire have enjoyed. Slots held by more recently ensconced early states Nevada and South Carolina could also be up for grabs.
Competition could be stiff. As of early May, 19 states and the Democrats Abroad had submitted letters of intent to apply, Katie Glueck of the New York Times reported. States have until June 3 to get the ball rolling, with a final decision expected this summer.
National Democrats say they're open to revamping the calendar in order to give states with more diverse populations a chance at auditioning the field of presidential hopefuls before the die is cast, with the diversity umbrella covering economic characteristics as well as race and ethnicity. Other considerations include geographic range and the chance states can help pick strong candidates, which could ultimately be a very subjective measure, Glueck suggested.
A spokeswoman for the Colorado Democrats said the state's DNC members agreed unanimously to bid for an early slot to "showcase who we are as Democrats and our commitment to connecting with voters and the lifting up the grassroots."
According to Census Bureau calculations, Colorado lands smack in the middle in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, ranking 25th on the bureau's diversity index, which measures the chances any two people chosen at random will be from different races or ethnicities. The most diverse states by that measure are Hawaii, California, Nevada and Maryland, while current early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire finish near the bottom of the list, just above Vermont, West Virginia and Maine. The states that bracket Colorado are the slightly more diverse South Carolina and Alabama, and the slightly less diverse Massachusetts and Arkansas.
Colorado's track record has been mixed picking presidential nominees. In the nine caucuses and four primaries the state has held in the last 50 years — since 1972, when both parties adopted roughly the nominating process that still prevails — state voters in both parties have thrown curve balls as often as not in contested races, sometimes siding with candidates right before they ended their campaigns.
Thirty years ago, Colorado was one of the earliest states to weigh in on the parties' presidential picks in its newly adopted March 3 primary, joining Georgia and Maryland and a handful of caucusing states on what was dubbed 1992's Mini Super Tuesday, after Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary.
Republican President George H.W. Bush, who was seeking a second term, encountered an early sign that his reelection bid might be in trouble when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan snagged 30% of the vote in Colorado.
The sprawling Democratic field included Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, hot on the heels of his win in his home state, which was regarded as a less consequential win by a favorite son. Tsongas, likewise, had just won the primary in his neighboring state of New Hampshire.
With the polls showing a tight race as the Democrats criss-crossed the state, the candidates met for a final televised debate sponsored by KUSA-TV and the Rocky Mountain News on Feb. 29 — Leap Day — at Denver's Auditorium Theater.
In a stunning upset, Brown came from behind to win the Colorado primary with 29% to Clinton's 27% and Tsongas's 26%. Clinton won the same night in Georgia and Tsongas carried Maryland, leaving the race up for grabs for another week until Clinton secured the lead by sweeping the mostly Southern states on Super Tuesday.
Colorado voted in presidential primaries two more times, in 1996 and 2000, when both parties' contests had already solidified around frontrunners, before the state decided to scrap the primary and return to caucuses ahead of the 2008 election.
That year, Democrats handed Obama an early and decisive win over Hillary Clinton while Republican caucus-goers tilted toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over eventual nominee John McCain, the Arizona senator.
In 2012, Obama ran without opposition but Colorado Republicans again went with an outlier, handing a win to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum the same night Romney scored enough delegates in other states to clear a path to his nomination.
Both parties chose candidates who didn't wind up winning the nomination in 2016, with the Democrats siding by a wide margin with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over Clinton and Republicans going all-in for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in a byzantine delegate-selection process that left that year's nominee, Donald Trump, fuming that Colorado's process was "rigged." Voters approved a statewide ballot initiative that fall to establish a presidential primary starting in 2020.
One of 14 states and territories voting on the 2020 cycle's Super Tuesday, Colorado attracted visits from most of the major candidates — including Trump, who held a massive rally in Colorado Springs a couple weeks before the vote, even though he faced only nominal opposition — but lagged in attention behind more delegate-rich states voting on the same day, including Texas and California.
Unsurprisingly, Trump swept the GOP primary with 92% of the vote, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld with about 4%. Another four candidates trailed, including former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who had withdrawn from the race by the time Colorado voted.
It was a tighter race on the more crowded Democratic side, where Sanders finished 13 percentage points ahead of Biden, with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Warren trailing. Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar ended their campaigns and endorsed Biden just days before Colorado's primary.
Biden, who came close to cementing the nomination with wins in 10 states the night he finished second in Colorado, didn't visit the state for a public campaign event in 2020, though he dropped in for a couple of fundraisers early in the cycle before the pandemic shut things down in the weeks that followed Super Tuesday.