Beginning in the second full week of February, Colorado voters are going to begin doing something they haven’t done in 20 years: cast ballots in a presidential primary.
At the same time, a whole lot of Coloradans will get the chance to do something they’ve never done before: vote in the Democratic or Republican presidential primary without having to register with either party.
Two ballot issues passed by state voters in 2016 converge next month, ahead of Colorado’s March 3 presidential primary on Super Tuesday: Initiative 108, which revived the primary, sidelined since 2000 by state lawmakers in favor of caucuses, and Initiative 107, which opened up Colorado’s primaries to unaffiliated voters.
Colorado will still hold precinct caucuses — this year they’ll be on the Saturday after the presidential primary, March 7 — and a June 30 primary for state-level and congressional offices.
But unlike in the last four presidential election years, the state’s delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions will be allocated based on the results of a primary election, instead of precinct caucuses.
Over the last 50 years, since the modern presidential primary system began to emerge in 1972, Colorado Democrats and Republicans have helped select the presidential nominees a dozen times — three times in primaries and nine times with caucuses.
Colorado held presidential primaries for the 1992, 1996 and 2000 elections, but state lawmakers decided to revert to precinct caucuses after that, primarily as a cost-saving measure. Taxpayers, it turns out, pay for primary elections, but the major political parties foot the bill for caucuses.
On the heels of overcrowded and often chaotic 2016 caucuses, supporters of that fall’s ballot initiative argued that it was time to abandon caucuses for mail-in ballot primaries, since it would be easier for more voters to participate. While they were at it, voters agreed that unaffiliated residents ought to be able to take part, too, since their tax dollars were paying for the election.
After some legislative wrangling failed to settle on a plan in the spring of 2016, it was left to Kent Thiry, the wealthy former CEO of DaVita Healthcare Partners and an aspiring gubernatorial candidate, to bankroll ballot measures 107 and 108.
Mail ballots start going out to Colorado voters on Feb. 10, a week after the Iowa caucuses and the day before the New Hampshire primary.
Later in February, voters in Nevada attend caucuses and South Carolina holds its primary, likely shuffling the Democratic presidential field by the time Colorado and 13 other states and territories weigh in.
With approval ratings hovering around 90% among Republicans, President Donald Trump is certain to sail to the GOP nomination for a second term, even though he’s drawn some challengers.
At this point, Colorado Democrats will be able to choose from 16 candidates, including two who ended their campaigns but didn’t notify election officials in time to keep their names from appearing on the ballot — Cory Booker and Marianne Williamson.
Colorado’s Michael Bennet will appear alongside front-runners Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, as well as Michael Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Deval Patrick and John Delaney.
It’s likely at least a few more of the major candidates might withdraw from the primary before Colorado’s votes are counted.
On the Republican side, Trump is one of six candidates on a ballot that will also include former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Michigan.
Some of the candidates’ names on both parties’ ballots will likely be unfamiliar to most voters, since they haven’t run high-profile campaigns. The obscure Democrats include Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente III, Robby Wells and Rita Krichevsky, while the lesser-known GOP candidates include Matthew John Matern, Robert Ardini and Zoltan G. Istvan.
It’s an open question whether Colorado voters will play a pivotal role this year in the nomination process or get lost in the shuffle.
Super Tuesday lives up to its name this year, with roughly 40% of delegate votes set to be decided on the single day.
Colorado’s results will be vying for national attention with election night returns from a half dozen larger states — California, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts and Tennessee — as well as seven smaller states, American Samoa and Democrats who live abroad.
No single Democratic candidate has held more than a couple of events in Colorado, though campaign insiders say that should change after Iowa and New Hampshire vote, potentially whittling down the number of hopefuls as Super Tuesday nears.
Sanders, who won Colorado’s 2016 caucuses with 60% of the vote, held a massive rally in Denver’s Civic Center in September, and Warren filled a repurposed airplane hangar in April for an Aurora town hall.
Buttigieg held a raucous small-dollar fundraiser at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver in early January, Biden attended a private fundraiser in Denver in September, and Bloomberg met with gun violence survivors before unveiling his gun-control agenda at an Aurora church in December.
Klobuchar and Steyer appeared at separate Denver town halls sponsored by Secretary of State Jena Griswold in December, and Bennet held a town hall of his own at a Denver church on the day after Thanksgiving.
A few candidates who have since withdrawn from the primary also held campaign events in the state before shelving their White House aspirations.
John Hickenlooper kicked off his short-lived presidential run with a March rally and concert in Denver’s Civic Center, Kamala Harris revved up a crowd inside Manual High School’s gymnasium in Denver in August, and Marianne Williamson visited Denver in July to speak at both a Mental Health and Mental Fitness summit and an America Meditates event.
With just weeks to go until the nominating season kicks off in Iowa and New Hampshire, don’t expect visits to Colorado from any of the presidential candidates — except possibly Bloomberg, whose unconventional strategy involves skipping the February contests, instead pouring his vast resources into Super Tuesday states in hopes that the early primaries and caucuses won’t have yielded a clear front-runner.
In late February and the first days of March, however, Colorado could witness a crush of presidential campaign activity.
Next week, Trail Mix will take a look at Colorado’s past presidential primaries and caucuses, including a few times when the state’s voters made noticeable splashes and a couple of noteworthy thuds.