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Politics and Government

7 Colorado political myths busted in the 2018 election

The big Democratic year defied expectations across the board and put old thinking about Colorado politics to rest, strategists argue

Gov.-elect Jared Polis takes the oath of office Tuesday at the Colorado Capitol. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The extraordinary nature of the 2018 election in Colorado defied the conventional wisdom.

Or as Rick Ridder, the veteran Democratic pollster and strategist argues, it’s the year of busted political myths.

In a new analysis shared with The Colorado Sun, Ridder and associate Ariane Williams outline the myths that they contend were destroyed by the 2018 vote, thanks in large part to Democratic Gov.-elect Jared Polis.

Ariane Williams is a project manager at RBI Strategies and Research.
Rick Ridder is a Democratic pollster and strategist based in Colorado.

“With Colorado changing rapidly, what was once verboten is now an asset, and the big no-nos are no big deal,” the two wrote. Ridder is president of RBI Strategies and Research, which worked for the Polis campaign, and Williams is a project manager at the firm.

Here’s a look at the analysis — and a bonus busted myth from Republican pollster and strategist David Flaherty.

1. “A politician from Boulder can’t win statewide.”

The statement references Polis, who served as a five-term Boulder congressman before making his bid for the state’s top post. And Ridder and Williams recall that a Democratic voter in the caucus used the Boulder anxiety to justify support for rival Cary Kennedy.

Republicans also tried to use Boulder as an attack line against Polis in the general election, but it didn’t work.

Pointing to previous statewide victories by U.S. Sens. Tim Wirth and Mark Udall, both from the Boulder area, the analysis suggests Boulder is actually an “electoral juggernaut” that supports its hometown candidates, making it a ripe territory for Democrats. Polis outpaced current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2014 win by 4.3 percent statewide, but by 7.6 percent in Boulder County.

2. “A gay politician can’t win statewide.”

This was the thinking in Colorado for decades, Ridder and Williams argue. They point to Amendment 2, approved by Colorado voters in 1992, that prohibited protections from discrimination based on sexuality. This year, Polis became the first openly gay man elected governor in the nation.

“How did “the hate state” elect an out gay gubernatorial candidate for the first time in U.S. history?” the duo write. “With very little fanfare, as it turns out. In fact, it was such a non-issue that many Polis supporters didn’t know he was gay.”

MORE: A look at the long list of historical firsts Colorado reached with its 2018 elections.

3. “A Jewish politician can’t win statewide.”

Ridder recalls being told in the 1982 campaign by a veteran Southern Colorado political operative that a Jewish woman couldn’t win in that part of the state, a reference to attorney general candidate Gail Klapper. And makes the case it no longer is true.

This year, three Jewish Democrats won statewide: Polis in the governor’s race, Phil Weiser in the attorney general’s race and Jena Griswold in the secretary of state’s contest.

4. “You can’t buy a landslide.”

To bust this idea, the analysis points to the battle over Proposition 112, the measure to increase the distance between oil and gas operations and homes to 2,500 feet. The energy industry working to defeat the measure spent more than 36 times what the measure’s supporters put into the contest. (An independent Sun analysis found oil and gas interests combined to spend $34 million to defeat the Proposition 112 and support Amendment 74, both of which failed.)

But the big spending didn’t lead to a landslide. Proposition 112 failed with only 45 percent approval to 55 percent against. “Oil and gas, take note: the price may keep climbing,” the Democratic strategists wrote.

Not mentioned in the analysis: the big money Democrats put into the governor’s race to win by 11 points. Polis even spent an unprecedented $23 million from his personal bank account.

5. “You must go to Club 20.”

The uproar about Polis’ decision to skip the Club 20 debate in Grand Junction, the traditional start to the general election, didn’t appear to have an effect. Republican Walker Stapleton won the counties represented in the Club 20 regional organization by 3.2 percent. But Ridder and Williams note that Hickenlooper lost those counties by 7.6 percent in 2014 — and he attended the Club 20 events.

“This data suggests that there is not a great argument for going to the Club 20 debate, but maybe a rationale for field offices, extensive public appearance across the region, and attending multiple televised debates—all of which Polis did,” the analysis states.

6. “Younger voters don’t vote.”

The post-election report found 44 percent of the 2018 voters were under age 50 — a historic high, wrote Ridder and Williams. Entering the race, they added, this age group was only expected to reach 40 percent of total voters, based on an assumption that midterm elections skew toward older voters.

Add one more to the list …

In a separate post-race study for his Republican clients, Flaherty found a similarly large number of younger voters.

But he also focused on a huge misconception in 2018 that you can add to the list when it comes to unaffiliated voters:

7. “Unaffiliated voters don’t vote in midterms.”

Flaherty’s found that unaffiliated voters — those not aligned with any political party — cast 283,795 more votes in 2018 than 2014, which amounts to a 57 percent increase.

Unaffiliated voters represented the largest portion of the ballots cast at 35 percent in 2018, compared to 33 percent for Democrats and 32 percent for Republicans. In the prior two midterm elections, Republicans had a five point advantage or more.

The larger numbers of unaffiliated voters reflects the surge in registrations for this group ahead of the 2018 contest. And as a group, they are trending toward Democrats, Flaherty found in a post-election poll.

MORE: Here’s why Colorado’s unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly picked Democrats in 2018.

Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond

The question of whether 2018 is an anomaly, or whether these notions will remain an element of Colorado’s past, is an open one. But Flaherty and Ridder expect the new landscape to hold for now.

“It’s part of those 2018 story, and there are changes that are likely to be permanent at least for a while,” Flaherty said.

“Are these myths broken forever? There will always be some that come back and someone will say, ‘I told you so,’” Ridder concluded. “But I think the long term-trend at this point makes sense.”


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