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The Colorado Capitol in downtown Denver, photographed on June 14, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The state’s most prominent Democratic and Republican pollsters, in independent surveys of likely 2020 voters conducted a month apart, came to a consensus about the political mood in Colorado.

President Donald Trump gets low marks. Gov. Jared Polis is popular. And people lean toward thinking that the state is headed in the right direction.

But behind the numbers, there’s a more profound conclusion: The pollsters are forecasting essentially the same voter turnout model for the next election. 

And that spells bad news for Republicans.

Keating Research, a Democratic pollster, and Magellan Strategies, a Republican firm, believe that younger voters and those unaffiliated with a political party will dominate turnout in November 2020, and ballots cast by Latinos will account for a solid portion of the final tally. 

All these factors typically favor Democrats in Colorado.

“I think it’s fair to say that things are lining up well for Democrats,” said Curtis Hubbard at OnSight Public Affairs, a political firm that partnered with Keating Research for a statewide poll in June.

“I think having President Trump at the top of the ticket is not good for any Republican running,” said Ryan Winger at Magellan Strategies, which released its poll numbers Thursday.

How the pollsters arrived at their 2020 voter model

The poll’s results — the who’s-up and who’s-down numbers — usually get the most attention. But the model the pollster uses to make the forecast is actually more important.

In short, the turnout model is a projection of who the pollsters expect to vote, and the closer the model reflects who actually votes, the more likely the poll is accurate. (Other factors, such as methodology and question wording also play a significant role. More on that below.)

To determine who is likely to cast ballots, Keating and Magellan looked at voter demographics from prior elections and accounted for registration trends and political currents. 

Voters cast ballots at Denver’s 14th Avenue and Bannock Street polling station on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In its new poll, Magellan forecasted that 36% of 2020 voters would be unaffiliated with a political party, 33% will be Democrats, 30% would be Republicans and 1% would be from other parties. So it showed a 3-point advantage to Democrats.

The larger proportion of unaffiliated voters was based on “the significant growth of unaffiliated voters in the state, and the fact that they comprised 34% of turnout in the 2018 midterm,” Magellan wrote in a memo outlining its model. The Democratic figure was benchmarked to steady turnout in prior elections, while Republican turnout was downgraded. 

From 2014 to 2018, Magellan found that Republican turnout in the midterms dropped from 37% to 32%, so a similar drop from 2016 to the 2020 election was expected. 

“This is not meant to be a suggestion that Republican turnout will be lagging, or depressed in any way,” the pollster wrote. “It is simply because we expect unaffiliated turnout to rise and that will come at the expense of Republicans.”

Likewise, the increased participation from voters aged 18 to 34 in the 2018 election led the firm to put its turnout at 27%, a 2 percentage point increase from 2016.

Chris Keating, the Democratic pollster, arrived at similar conclusions. His partisan breakdown for 2020 was 37% unaffiliated, 32% Democratic and 31% Republican. So he gave Democrats only a 1-point advantage.

“I’m projecting a few more Republicans come out (in 2020) because Trump is on the ballot,” he said. “I try to be a little more conservative before we see who’s going on.”

(As of July 1, Colorado voter registration stood at 40% unaffiliated, 30% Democrat and 28% Republican.)

Most pollsters will consider adjusting their models based on new developments in the course of the campaign. And Keating expects to do so. “I tweak it depending on what I see in the voter file in terms of who is registered to vote and who is likely to vote,” he said.

But Winger at Magellan thinks the firm’s 2020 outlook was pretty solid. “We are pretty confident in (those) numbers,” he said. “It would take a lot to get off that model.”

MORE: Five factors that will determine whether Cory Gardner can win in 2020

What the model means for Democrats and Republicans in 2020

If these voters are the ones to cast ballots 16 months from now, Republicans face trouble.

Keating’s poll put Trump’s favorability rating at 42% compared to 56% unfavorable. Magellan reports that Trump’s approval rating was 39% compared to 57% disapproval. 

The two firms ask different versions of the question about popularity, but both find Polis earned praise from nearly half the voters.

The margin of error on both polls was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican facing reelection, was statistically even at 40% favorable and 39% unfavorable in the Keating polls. Magellan did not ask about Gardner in its latest survey, but it did find that likely voters prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress by a 10-point margin, 47% to 37% over a Republican-led body.

The two pollsters found a slight difference regarding the well being of the state. In the Keating poll, 55% said the state was going “in the right direction” and another 37% said it was headed “in the wrong direction.” Eight percent were undecided.

In the Magellan survey, 44% agreed that Colorado was “headed in the right direction” compared to 41% who felt “that things are off on the wrong track” — essentially an even split within the margin of error. Another 15% were unsure. (A prior statewide Magellan survey in March found numbers closer to the Keating poll with a 52% to 41% right direction-wrong track split.)

Both polls found that Democrats are slightly more interested in the 2020 election than Republicans. The Magellan survey found 77% of Democrats at the top of the scale, compared to 73% Republicans. Unaffiliated voters trailed at 68% in terms of interest.

The lower level for those unaffiliated with a party was not alarming to Winger. In fact, he said, “I’m surprised they are as close to Democrats and Republicans.” 

“I think in a more typical year they would be lower,” he added, attributing the dynamic to “the fact you can’t get away from Trump — he’s everywhere.”

MORE: Who’s signing the petition to recall Gov. Jared Polis? People who feel left out in Colorado.

One big asterisk on two key questions

Keating and Magellan conducted their surveys a bit differently in terms of methodology and questions, but both adhere to standard industry practices. (The two firms have worked together in the past, but the voter models and poll were conducted separately.) 

Keating used live interviewers to randomly contact registered voters who cast ballots in the 2016 or 2018 elections, reaching them on cellphones and landlines June 24-27.

(DOCUMENTS: Keating Research poll memo, poll crosstabs, poll questions)

Magellan used live interviewers to randomly contact registered voters from July 15-17 — half on cellphones and landlines, and half through online interviews. Both polls screened responses to include only those likely to vote.

(DOCUMENTS: Magellan Strategies poll summary and questions and poll crosstabs)

But one part of the new Magellan survey needs a cautionary asterisk. Toward the end of the poll, the Republican firm tried to gauge voters’ opinions on the 2019 legislative session — one in which Democrats celebrated huge successes but Republicans complained about political overreach.

The problem is the question’s wording was not even-handed, and Democrats argue it was intended to slant respondents a certain direction. The survey asked: 

“Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Governor Polis and the Democratic state legislature overreached during this past legislative session and passed bills that went too far and were out of touch with everyday Coloradans.”

The repetition of the negative terms against Polis and legislative Democrats is the issue with the wording. Winger said it was needed “to kind of drive home the point that this is what we are looking for — do you think they are out of touch?” The poll found a split verdict with 45% in agreement with the statement and 40% in disagreement. Fifteen percent were unsure.

The next question in the survey was worded more down the middle, but the result was stained by the prior question. It asked:

“As you may know, there is an effort underway to recall Governor Jared Polis, and signatures are currently being collected around the state. If that effort to hold a recall election is successful, would you vote yes to recall Governor Polis and remove him from office, or would you vote no to keep Governor Polis in office?”

The results found a narrow plurality wouldn’t support a potential recall vote with 47% saying they would keep Polis in office and 38% saying they would oust him. Interestingly, 30% who believed the 2019 session went too far still are undecided about the recall or would vote to keep Polis in office.

But the questions surrounding the wording mean the numbers only reflect how voters responded to that particular message, not the broader question about approval of the 2019 session or a potential Polis recall election.

Winger said the results show a recall vote against the governor — even if it cleared monumental hurdles to make the ballot — was unlikely to succeed. 

Hubbard, who is working to rebut the Republican recall efforts, said the questions were biased.

But he still put a positive spin on the results: “It’s just another data point that a majority of Colorado voters are supportive of Gov. Polis and statehouse Democrats, and the recalls are being driven by people with other agendas.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.