Colorado's 2020 presidential primary and precinct caucuses are in the books, marking the official start to this year's election calendar.
Both saw record turnout, though the primary set the kind of record the state and both major parties boast about, and the caucuses did the opposite.
It's instructive to take a look at some takeaways from the first contests of Colorado's 2020 political season before they recede from view — pushed aside by the rapidly evolving response to the coronavirus outbreak, which is upending the way politics could be conducted in coming weeks at the same time it's spawning shortages of toilet paper, Purell and Clorox wipes.
Coloradans like primaries but aren't that keen anymore on caucuses.
When Colorado voters approved the creation of a presidential primary in 2016, that year's over-crowded and chaotic Democratic caucuses were still fresh.
Four years ago, more than 123,000 Democrats turned out on a Tuesday night — packed into gymnasiums, spilling out the doors of schools and community centers — to pick Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton by about 20 percentage points. This year, nearly 1 million ballots were cast in the Democratic presidential primary, with the 680,000 Democrats joined by around 450,000 unaffiliated voters.
Voters this year handed the win to Sanders, though by a narrower margin. He won the primary with 37% of the vote to Joe Biden's 27%, with other major candidates who withdrew from the race within days of the Super Tuesday primary taking the remainder.
Turnout was exceptionally high among Democrats, with nearly two-thirds of the active, registered Democrats voting.
Roughly one-third of unaffiliated voters participated in the primary, voting at nearly the twice the rate they did in the 2018 primary, their first chance to take part in a Colorado primary without having to belong to either major party. According to an analysis by Magellan Strategies, a Louisville-based polling and political consulting firm, unaffiliated voters opted to vote in the Democratic primary by a margin of about three-to-one.
Turnout on the Republican side was equally remarkable, especially considering Donald Trump was effectively unopposed, with more than half a million GOP voters going to the trouble to return ballots — about a 50% turnout rate for active, registered members of the party.
For a multitude of reasons, caucus turnout could have hit new lows for both parties, all things considered.
Colorado Democrats, who are facing a crowded, contested primary for the U.S. Senate nomination, counted more than 15,000 caucus attendees — up by a few thousand from the recent low point in 2012, when the party didn't have any contested races beyond a handful of legislative primaries — but down dramatically from the big turnouts the party has notched in the last couple of decades.
Andrew Romanoff won the main event, racking up 55% of the vote in a statewide preference poll in the Senate race, with John Hickenlooper taking 30%. Three other candidates going through the caucus-assembly route were way behind — Trish Zornio with 6%, Stephany Rose Spaulding with 5% and Erik Underwood barely registering, with 0.2%. About 3% of caucus-goers opted for "uncommitted."
Republicans didn't have anything to decide beyond picking delegates to attend upcoming assemblies and conventions — along with the usual precinct caucus activities like recruiting election judges and signing up precinct committee people — so didn't report statewide attendance.
According to spot checks at a dozen caucus locations around the state, though, the GOP turnout was likely much lower than the Democrats, possibly barely topping 5,000.
It's hard to know exactly what to blame for the sparse attendance, which was no doubt influenced by several factors — casual partisans had already had their say on the top-ticket races in the presidential primary, moving the caucuses from their traditional Tuesday night position to Saturday confused plenty of voters, and it turned out that March 7 was as nice a day as many Coloradans had seen in some time, making the thought of spending a couple hours indoors taking care of party business less appealing to many Democrats and Republicans.
In addition, worries over the spread of coronavirus discouraged an unknown number of potential caucus-goers, even as those who did attend were trying out new ways to greet one another that didn't involve shaking hands — bumping elbows, tipping hats or some complicated footwork that as often as not produced smiles all around.
Still, when the votes were counted, it turns out that when the rest of the country zigs, Colorado likes to zag.
The same night that Biden cemented his status as the Democrats' front-runner, continuing the resurrection that started with his solid win three days earlier in the South Carolina primary, Colorado voters did what they've become known for — voting contrary to what turns out to be the prevailing mood of the parties.
Biden won 10 states on Super Tuesday — Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Alabama Arkansas and Maine — while Sanders racked up wins in California, Colorado, Utah and Vermont.
This echoes other recent presidential results in Colorado, like when Democrats picked Sanders over Clinton in 2016, the same year Republicans went with Ted Cruz instead of Donald Trump. The Colorado GOP also supported Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney in 2012, and picked Romney while snubbing eventual nominee John McCain in 2008.
One reason Sanders might have done better in Colorado than in other states that voted the same day is that the state's young voters turned out in unusually high numbers, contrary to trends nationwide that saw the younger share of the vote decline from previous years.
In fact, according to a Magellan analysis of the votes cast, voters age 18-34 accounted for the largest share of the vote among unaffiliated voters, while that cohort made up the second-largest share of Democratic voters, behind voters over age 65, who traditionally lead the age groups.
Among Republicans, the distribution by age looked more like it usually does, with voters 65 and older making up nearly 40% of the GOP electorate, followed by voters 55-64.
Another group new to the polls this year also left their mark — 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the general election, who can vote in Colorado primaries for the first time this year.
According to Secretary of State Jena Griswold — the youngest secretary of state in the country, she points out — these voters cast more than 10,500 ballots in the primary. An initial analysis showed that the pre-registered group turned out at a rate of about 45%, precisely the same as the overall turnout rate for all voters statewide.
While some ballots were still being processed, Griswold said last week that more than twice as many of these very young voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary as voted in the Republican primary.