The importance of the Colorado unaffiliated voter in our state’s politics and policymaking has been growing over time. Just over 10 years ago, there were 3.2 million registered voters in Colorado. At that time, voter affiliation by party was evenly divided, with 33% identifying as Democratic, 33% Republican and 33% unaffiliated.
Many talk about politics in Colorado as if this is still the case, but it certainly is not.
Today, among the 3.7 million registered voters in our state, 41% identify as unaffiliated, 30% Democratic and 29% Republican. By sheer numbers alone, the influence of unaffiliated voters in our elections has grown, and current trends suggest it will continue to do so because among voters that are age 44 and younger, nearly 50% identify as unaffiliated.
However, unaffiliated voters historically have not participated in statewide, local or odd-year elections as frequently as Democratic or Republican voters. In the 2008 presidential election, unaffiliated voters made up just 28% of total turnout in Colorado, while Democratic and Republican voters each constituted 35% of all votes cast. In the 2012 presidential election unaffiliated voters were more engaged compared to 2008, making up 32% of all votes cast, but still lagged Democratic and Republican turnout.
Why? Our internal polling and focus group work over the last 10 years has found that unaffiliated voters simply are less interested in politics or policy debates than Democratic and Republican voters. For that reason, they were “punching below their weight,” not exerting as much influence over the political process as their numbers would suggest.
Well, that all changed in the 2018 midterm election, when unaffiliated voters contributed 35% of the total votes cast in Colorado compared to Democrats making up 33% of turnout and Republican voters 32%. In light of this development, we think the most pressing question for political observers is whether unaffiliated voters will continue to demonstrate their newly found intensity when it comes to voting.
If the answer to that question is yes, and here at Magellan we believe it will be a resounding yes, then it is going to be the most important development in Colorado politics for years to come.
To put the growth of the unaffiliated voter in context, consider basic turnout from the past two midterm elections. In 2014, 46% of unaffiliated voters cast a ballot. In the 2018 election, 60% of them voted, a whopping 14-point increase. They are getting off the couch and engaging in the political process like they never have before.
The bottom line is that the unaffiliated voter will determine which candidates win elections and which ballot measures pass or fail in 2020 and beyond. This is true in more and more regions across Colorado, including Republican the strongholds of Douglas County, Weld County and the Western Slope.
Don’t believe us? Let us show you the data to prove it.
In the 2014 election, Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert won his Douglas County district by 18,331 votes, with 50% percent of the voters that participated in the 2014 election being Republican, 28% unaffiliated and 22% Democratic. In the 2018 election, his margin of victory was cut in half, winning by “only” 9,344 votes.
Republican voters made up 42% of all votes cast, a decline 8 points from 2014, and not because they didn’t turnout to vote. Nearly 2,000 more Republicans voted in Senator Holbert’s district in 2018 than in 2014.
Rather, the decline in his margin of victory happened because unaffiliated voters made up 35% of all votes cast, an increase of 7 points from 2014. That growth in unaffiliated voters came almost entirely at the expense of Republicans.
This phenomenon occurred all over the state, and if it continues it will put once competitive legislative districts out of reach for Republicans and will create competitive districts in areas previously considered solidly Republican.
So, what’s our point? Our point is the most relevant question in Colorado politics today is not if Republicans think Governor Polis and the legislature have overreached, or if Democrats are happy with the results coming from the capital.
The most relevant question is: What do unaffiliated voters think? Because they are the voters who will decide the outcome of our elections in Colorado now and in the foreseeable future. The candidate, party or campaign organization that earns their vote and trust will be the ones who are successful.
David Flaherty, a veteran pollster, campaign consultant and strategist, is founder and CEO of Louisville-based Magellan Strategies.