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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders hosts a rally in Denver's Civic Center Park on Sept. 9, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The way Colorado picks presidential candidates is completely different from 2016, when Democrats in the state felt the Bern.

Colorado will hold its first presidential primary in two decades next year instead of political party caucuses, a move that is expected to dramatically increase turnout and will allow unaffiliated voters to participate in determining the allocation of Democratic delegates to the national convention. 

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The remade voter landscape makes the contest more unpredictable, especially if a large number of candidates remain in the race for the Super Tuesday vote. 

And it means what happened in 2016 in Colorado is no guide for what to expect in 2020. Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — who holds a rally Monday evening in Denver, his first in Colorado this campaign cycle — beat Hillary Clinton in the state’s primary caucuses four years ago, seizing 59% of the vote to her 40% by drawing devoted supporters to the one-night caucus in March.

“I would bet my entire life on it: If in 2016 Colorado was a primary and not a caucus state, Hillary would have won,” said Brad Komar, who was Clinton’s state director in 2016. “Caucuses are lower turnout, and that favors more ideological candidates. When you go to a primary and more people participate in the electorate, it becomes more moderate.”

About 120,000 Democrats participated in the contested caucus in 2016, a paltry 11% of the eligible party members. This time, hundreds of thousands more people will vote with mailed-home ballots, and most will not identify as party diehards, like those who dominated the 2016 primary.

The Sanders campaign knows its candidate can’t rest on his laurels from four years ago if he wants to win again in Colorado’s March 3 primary.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont. (Handout)

“It’s a different ballgame altogether, 100%,” said Joe Calvello, a Sanders spokesman. “We’re not taking it for granted. We’re working hard, putting in the effort. Putting in the elbow grease.”

So far they are feeling good about their position in Colorado, citing an Emerson College poll of the state from August that shows Sanders locked in a dead heat at the top with former Vice President Joe Biden. The poll’s methodology, however, make the results doubtable and top pollsters in Colorado dismissed the findings because of the problems with how it was conducted.

The Sanders campaign has organizers on the ground in Colorado and boasts that more than 78,000 Coloradans have interacted in some way with the 2020 effort. On top of that, events are planned in the coming weeks across the state and the campaign says its volunteer base has grown dramatically. 

The biggest question mark is how unaffiliated voters — those not aligned with a major political party and the largest bloc in Colorado at 40% of the total — will respond. The ballot measure approved in 2016 to allow them to participate in primary contests gives them the choice to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary, but not both.

In 2018, 281,408 unaffiliated voters participated in the two major parties’ primary elections for governor, constituting 24% of the total vote, according to Colorado election officials. About 60% — or 171,000 — of those unaffiliated voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary, according to an analysis by Magellan Strategies, a Republican polling firm based in Louisville. 

The numbers suggest that party members still dominate primary elections, but the unaffiliated turnout — which surprised political strategists from both major parties — is a significant factor.

In the 2020 primaries, “I fully expect it to be a bigger number,” said David Flaherty at Magellan Strategies. 

“As long as Trump keeps trying to blow up the world … and just goes nuclear, it’s only going to get more and more younger voters, which are more unaffiliated, off their couch and want to weigh in on it,” he said.

With 2020 being a presidential election year, those primary participation numbers could swell even more. 

Even the makeup of the party members who vote in their primaries will be different, explained University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket, who is researching the Democratic primary.

“Primaries just simply get higher turnout than caucuses,” he said. “Primaries are easier to participate in. Caucuses require at least two hours of your time on a weeknight — not everyone can do that. And so when you go to a primary you’re going to get a bigger chunk of the Democratic party.”

In terms of Sanders, the difference “doesn’t mean he can’t win,” Masket added. “Judging from some early polling there’s still a lot of enthusiasm for him in Colorado. But in terms of the people who are likely to show up at a primary, they’re probably not as supportive of him as a caucus audience.”

One example that shows how the process can produce different results is Washington state, which held a caucus and a primary in 2016.

In the caucus, Sanders secured 73% of the vote to Clinton’s 27%. But in the primary — which didn’t actually count toward the awarding of delegates to the party convention and thus was solely symbolic — Clinton won with 54% of the vote. 

Finally, another unknown factor is the size of the field. 

If more than two candidates remain in the race on Super Tuesday, it will split the vote. And unlike 2016, Sanders isn’t the only progressive candidate who appeals to the far-left members of the party. He’s facing increasing competition from Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who held a rally in Colorado in April and is organizing support in the state, too.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, spoke at an April 2019 campaign rally in Aurora. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

“It’s not a two-way race,” said Eric Sondermann, a political analyst. “In 2016, it was Hillary versus not-Hillary. This time around it’s a larger field. And secondly, he had the left lane to himself in 2016. And now there are a whole lot of people competing for the left lane.”

The timing of the state’s mail ballots may complicate the race, too. 

Colorado voters will be mailed ballots on Feb. 10, one day before New Hampshire’s scheduled primary. So even if some contenders drop out after poor performances in the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary, they may still draw Colorado votes.

MORE: Colorado voters will be able to cast their presidential primary ballots on the same day as New Hampshire’s

One thing that may not be a factor this time: superdelegates. In 2016, Sanders took the pledged delegates at the caucus but the state’s superdelegates — elected officials and party officers — supported Clinton and essentially erased any advantage Sanders won in the caucuses. 

In 2020, the state’s superdelegates, or automatic delegates, only come into play if it takes more than one ballot to select a Democratic presidential nominee at a contested convention.

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

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....