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Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of about 3,000 supporters during a 2016 campaign rally in Grand Junction on Oct. 18, 2016. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

To make a case that he can win over a divided nation, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bennet often points to his home state.

“This is a state that is exactly a third Democrat, a third Republican and a third independent,” the Colorado senator says, as he did recently at a town hall in Denver.

The refrain is a popular one in Colorado politics for Democrats and Republicans looking to prove a political point. And it’s repeated so often that it’s now part of the state’s image, seemingly certifying Colorado’s moderate “purple state” status.

The problem: The newest voter registration numbers tell a different story.

A decade ago, Colorado voters were evenly split into thirds, but since 2010, the voting populace not aligned with any political party has steadily increased. And at the start of December, Colorado reached a new milestone — 40% of the state’s voters are now unaffiliated.

The new number holds huge importance. Not only does it bust the myth about Colorado’s even partisan split, but the unaffiliated voters are poised to define the 2020 election year. The proportion of unaffiliated voters is expected to increase and this segment will receive outsized attention from the campaigns for the White House and U.S. Senate.

“A big question is: Where is the ceiling?” said Ryan Winger at Magellan Strategies, a Colorado-based Republican firm that analyzes voter data. “There will always be Republicans and Democrats, but will (unaffiliated) hit 50%? That’s pretty crazy to think about, but who knows.”

The partisan breakdown for the remainder of Colorado is 29% Democrat, 28% Republican and 3% minor parties, according to a new report from the elections division at the secretary of state’s office.

The December report offers one of the last real snapshots of the state’s voter breakdown because a new state law that takes effect in 2020 is expected to skew the registration statistics and make them less meaningful.

Voters cast their ballots at downtown Denver’s Bannock Street polling location on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Starting in April, Colorado will automatically register new voters as unaffiliated when they receive their driver’s license. It eliminates the option to affiliate with a party available in the current process at the motor vehicles office.

Instead, the state will follow up with a mailing to new voters asking if they want to affiliate with a political party or terminate their voter registration. The extra step is anticipated to reduce partisan identification and artificially inflate the number of unaffiliated voters.

“It’s just going to kind of muddy the waters,” Winger said, “and it’s going to be difficult to know whether they would have chosen a party under the old system.”

The 2008 election shifted the landscape in Colorado

The rise of unaffiliated voters in Colorado to the current plurality began more than a decade ago.

Republicans dominated the registration numbers for years. In 2004, the GOP represented 36% of the voter rolls and topped Democrats by more than 176,500 voters, according to an analysis of state registration data by The Colorado Sun. 

The dynamic started to shift in 2008, when unaffiliated voters narrowly edged Republicans to become the largest bloc in the state. That year, the two parties and unaffiliateds were split at one-third each. But that changed by 2012, when unaffiliated voters jumped to 35%. 

Since then, the ranks of the unaffiliated climbed every two years to the current level, the analysis shows. Democratic registration in 2016 took the second spot from Republicans, whose numbers continue to decline.

“No one is registering as a party any more,” said Tyler Sandberg, a Republican strategist in Colorado.

Even when Colorado’s 33-33-33 voter ratio shifted, the legend endured. 

This year on the presidential campaign trail, Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper — who ended his bid in August — both used the concept to demonstrate their ability to reach across the political aisle. Likewise, members of both parties often invoke the idea that the state is evenly divided as a way to caution the other to not push too far in one ideological direction.

What’s driving the push away from political parties

The migration away from party identification in Colorado is part of a national trend and diminishes the stature of the two major political parties.

One reason for the shift is a new law approved on the 2016 ballot that allows unaffiliated voters to vote in either the Democratic or Republican party primary without registering as a member, a reversal from prior practice. It will apply to the presidential primary in March and gives all voters a say in selecting the candidates for the first time since 2000.

The downside to not affiliating with a party is the inability to participate in the caucuses, which is another pathway for candidates to make the ballot and the place where delegates to the national political conventions are picked.

“In the past, we’ve had people who’ve been uncomfortable identifying with a party,” said Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “Now you don’t have to. You don’t have to call yourself one of the parties to participate. That frees voters up to want to take part in (a primary) but not want to declare a party.”

The ability to vote in either primary is boosting the unaffiliated list, but it’s not the main factor, according to analysts. Instead, the trend is driven by young voters and those relocating from other states, some of which don’t even allow party affiliation at registration.

President Donald Trump is an influential element, too. A Magellan Strategies analysis found that 55% of new voters who registered since Trump took office in January 2017 identified as unaffiliated, compared to 25% who picked Democrat and 18% Republican.

A Magellan poll from July put Trump’s approval rating among unaffiliated voters at 37% with disapproval at 58% — numbers that reflect the broader Colorado electorate’s view of the president. The results are similar to those from an October survey from Democratic pollster Chris Keating showing Trump under water in Colorado.

They are labeled purple but not always toss-up votes

What the poll numbers reflect is a dynamic that often gets lost in the purple-colored charts of Colorado voters: Just because unaffiliated voters don’t identify with a party doesn’t mean they aren’t partisan when they fill out a ballot. 

Most unaffiliated voters actually are loyal supporters of one party or the other, but don’t necessarily want to identify with a party’s brand or platform. “The reality is that there is a pretty good chunk of unaffiliated voters who are partisan voters,” said Jennie Peek-Dunstone, a Democratic strategist. “Maybe they do feel a little more moderate, but what you see is they still tend to vote one party or the other.”

At the same time, surveys and voting patterns show that partisan intensity is increasing, meaning fewer people are splitting their ballots between the parties.

The best barometer for how unaffiliated voters lean is the 2018 primary for governor. The race allowed them to cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican contests, and the numbers showed that 60% cast ballots in the Democratic contest, compared to 40% in the Republican one. 

This lends credibility to the new image of Colorado as a blue-tinted state.

The true toss-up vote in Colorado — the swing voters — are estimated at only between 5% and 10%, according to strategists in both parties. The dynamic pokes one more hole in the legend about Colorado’s even partisan split.

“It’s been a cheap shorthand that is actually totally misrepresentative of what’s happening on the ground,” Sandberg said. “Some unaffiliated voters are more reliably partisan than partisan voters themselves.”

The big question: Will 2020 election look like 2018?

The power of unaffiliated voters became apparent in the 2018 election. 

Unaffiliated voters for the first time cast more ballots than either of the two major political parties, representing 34.1% of the turnout, compared with 32.9% for Democrats and 31.5% for Republicans, according to data provided by the secretary of state’s office. These numbers often oscillate near one-third for each party but never stick exactly.

It represented a significant jump from the 2010 election, when unaffiliateds represented just 27% of the turnout, and even an increase from the 2016 presidential year. Democrats held essentially steady while Republican turnout fell.

The unaffiliated voters helped give Democrats historic wins in 2018 as the party took all major statewide offices and both houses of the General Assembly. A Magellan Strategies survey of unaffiliated voters after the election found 40% of them voted for Democrats to rebuke Trump and the Republican Party.

And if the vote holds for 2020, that’s a problem for Republicans, who need to defend the U.S. Senate seat held by Cory Gardner and boost Trump.

The watershed moment, said Winger at Magellan Strategies, suggests unaffiliated voters “are going to come out in full force next year, too.”

“We are really going to test the limits of this in the next presidential election,” he added.

With the party’s ranks declining, the party needs to win over more and more unaffiliated voters to be successful. 

In the 2018 election, Ben Engen, a Republican strategist who studies registration figures, forecast that the GOP needed 55% of unaffiliated voters to support their candidate in order to win. But Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton won only 25%, according to the post-election survey. By contrast, Democrat Jared Polis received support from 59% of unaffiliated voters.

For 2020, he said, Republicans will need an even greater proportion of unaffiliated voters — above 55%.

“Unaffiliateds are going to continue to be the dominant force in Colorado politics going forward,” Engen said. Without a presidential race on the ballot, the 2018 election is “a year you’d expect to see depression in unaffiliated turnout and participation, and that didn’t happen. So they are definitely going to be a big force in 2020.”

Republicans see an opportunity to appeal to unaffiliateds with a message similar to the one from the 2019 election that led to the defeat of Proposition CC, a ballot measure to remove spending caps in the state constitution. It failed by a wide margin with opposition from a portion of unaffiliated voters.

“Republicans can win them back on a fiscally focused message, but they are not coming back under Trump,” Sandberg said. “That’s the glimmer of hope that conservatives still have. On an issue basis, you can get them back. But on a partisan basis, the brand is damaged.”

Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of about 3,000 supporters during a 2016 campaign rally in Grand Junction on Oct. 18, 2016. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What it will take to identify and target unaffiliated voters in 2020

To find sympathetic unaffiliated voters, Democratic and Republican campaigns spend big money on outreach, such as door-to-door surveying that often begins months before elections. Others register voters at certain places, whether a Christian concert or anti-war rally, to learn information that may influence their political loyalties. 

The information is combined with other private data points — such as magazine subscriptions, online data and car ownership — that can forecast a voter’s political stance and key messaging points. 

“You’re really trying to guess a little bit from polling and other data and get a little better idea about who you want to talk to,” said Peek-Dunstone, a former executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party. “But a growing unaffiliated population means you’re probably spending a little more time and a little more money talking to those voters because you’re a little less sure where they are.”

“It’s all about knowing who is in the unaffiliated group and who among Democrats and Republicans could be persuaded to support our candidates and our causes,” added Lx Fangonilo, the executive director of the Colorado Republican Party. “It takes a lot of time to identify, persuade and turn out unaffiliated voters, on either side.”

The change in voter registration starting in April will only exacerbate the challenge, both parties agree. But Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, said the intent was to increase voter registration, regardless of party. 

The current system requires a conversation about party affiliation at the motor vehicles office that led some people to skip registering to vote altogether, she said. Griswold said she is not troubled by the decline in party registration. The greater priority, she said, is “the fact that they register in the first place.”

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