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Bernie Sanders fans gather at Colorado's Bernie Sanders Campaign Headquarters in Denver on Super Tuesday. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s first presidential primary in 20 years roared to life in the final 24 hours as the battlefield shifted in the Democratic race.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont won 36% of the vote and the most delegates. But his margins were narrowed by the departure of three candidates ahead of Tuesday, which allowed his remaining rivals — namely former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to make strong showings.

Biden defied expectations, securing a solid number of delegates — as many as 16 by an unofficial tally by The Colorado Sun — even though a poll a week earlier showed he may not even qualify. Bloomberg, meanwhile, leveraged his heavy financial investment in the state before ultimately ending his presidential bid Wednesday. 

And Massachusetts’ U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren notched a disappointing fourth-place finish in the state. That result came despite a late push from her campaign that included a Denver rally and TV advertising. 

Here’s a look at six numbers from Colorado’s primary results and how they tell the story of the election:

MORE: Bernie Sanders wins Colorado’s Democratic presidential primary, but late ballot surge may tighten race

20 percentage points for Sanders

Bernie Sanders dominated the populous, Democratic stronghold counties on Colorado’s northern Front Range. His margin of victory there ranged from 13 percentage points to 20 percentage points, a dominating performance that helped propel him to a decisive statewide win. 

In Adams County, Sanders had 42% of the vote at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday compared to his next closest rival Biden at 22%. Sanders’ margin in Denver was 18 percentage points and in Larimer County it was 16 percentage points. 

He overperformed in all three compared to his average statewide margin of 13 percentage points, an indication that his wins in Democratic strongholds led to his big night.

Heading into the 2020 presidential primary in Colorado, the Sanders campaign knew a crowded field and a shift from a caucus system to a primary with more moderate voters would pose a greater challenge. The campaign couldn’t solely repeat on the tactics that led to the candidate’s 2016 caucus win. 

Instead of investing piles of money and hiring paid staff in the state, the Sanders campaign relied on a network of thousands of volunteers to turn out supporters. In fact, the organization retained just two paid staffers and had one campaign office in the state.

While ultimately Sanders may not secure as many delegates as his campaign may have hoped, it’s still a victory and one that helps challenge the national narrative that Biden is on a cross-country roll. And the 28 delegates that he’s projected to pick up in Colorado aren’t anything to ignore. 

MORE: Colorado Democratic primary delegate count: A look at who won the state’s 67 delegates

584,953 unaffiliated voters — and counting

Unaffiliated voters turned out in droves to participate in the primary, seizing on their first chance in Colorado to help pick the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. 

Constellation Political, a Republican data firm, reported Wednesday morning that 584,953 unaffiliated voters had cast ballots. That number is expected to rise as county clerks process last-minute votes.

Roughly seven in 10 unaffiliated voters chose to participate in the Democratic presidential primary versus the Republican one. It’s a greater percentage than in 2018 — the first time unaffiliateds could vote in primary. In the gubernatorial primaries that year, six in 10 unaffiliated voters picked the Democratic contest.

More than 660,000 Democrats also turned out for the primary, compared to 529,000 Republicans, according to results tallied through Wednesday morning. Those numbers are expected to grow, and already represent a turnout rate of about 50% for the GOP and more than 50% for Democrats.

Unaffiliated and Democratic voters by and large waited until the last three days to turn in their ballots.

Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

7 in 10 Democratic voters say beating Trump is top priority

Coloradans want to see big policy changes, but more importantly, they want to oust President Donald Trump from office. 

That’s according to an exit poll of Democratic presidential primary voters conducted by CNN in Colorado in which seven in 10 said they would rather nominate a candidate who can beat Trump in November than one who agrees with them on the issues. 

And roughly five in 10 said they think the nation’s economic system needs a complete overhaul, a prime pillar of Democratic candidates’ platforms.

The new numbers not only reflect Colorado’s primary results, but also mimic recent polling in the state. A week before the primary, Republican polling firm Magellan Strategies found that 57% of Democratic primary voters said it’s more important to pick a candidate who can defeat Trump than one who shares their values and beliefs. 

Colorado Sun interviews with voters on Tuesday underscored those findings. “I just voted for who I think is best so we can get you-know-who out of office and someone decent in there,” said Otto Jose, a 24-year-old Democrat after he cast his ballot in downtown Denver on Tuesday. “It was tough. Bernie and Biden are both great. I’m just thinking who is going to beat Trump in the end, who has a better chance. … I think electorally Biden might have a better chance.”

Notably, while Sanders did win in Colorado, it wasn’t by a majority. In fact, a larger share of the vote went to Biden and Bloomberg, who have warned that Sanders is too divisive to beat Trump in the general election. It also appears Sanders won’t come out with a majority of the state’s delegates. 

Meanwhile, The Associated Press found in a poll of 3,006 Colorado for the seven days heading into election day, that Sanders’ support was strong among young voters, especially those under 30. Six in 10 of voters in that age group supported Sanders.

Bloomberg and Biden’s support, according to the AP, was solid among Colorado voters ages 45 and older. A quarter of those candidates’ support in the state came from that age group.

Joe Biden at Center for American Progress Action Fund on May 20, 2008. (Photo by Center for American Progress Action Fund via Flickr)

So far, 16 delegates for Biden 

Before Super Tuesday, Biden’s chances in Colorado looked bleak. He didn’t make a public appearance in the state, had spent little money on advertising and his staff was a skeleton crew. 

But Biden managed to make significant gains, overperforming compared to a poll just before the primary showing he was likely to receive only 11% of the vote in Colorado. As of Wednesday morning, his share was 23%.

As for delegates, Biden was expected to pick up at least 16, according to an analysis by The Sun. 

In Colorado, Biden was able to build off momentum from his win in South Carolina on Saturday and get a boost from former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who endorsed him after they exited the race.

Sean Rowe, a Denver voter, said Biden’s “momentum the last couple of days” solidified his decision to vote for him on Tuesday. Rowe said he had initially been supporting Buttigieg.

Even though Biden didn’t win Colorado’s statewide vote, the fact that he appears to be headed toward picking up a number of delegates represents a victory for his campaign. 

The big question is how much better Biden may have done in Colorado had Buttigeg and Klobuchar dropped out of the race earlier. It appears tens of thousands of Coloradans, if not more than 150,000, voted for the pair, effectively tossing out their vote — a share that may have gone to Biden or others. 

The New York Times reported that an exit poll in Colorado showed that Buttigieg and Klobuchar combined for 22 percent support.

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks to a crowd of over 4,000 people at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver during a campaign rally on Feb. 23, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

17% for Warren

Warren’s campaign hoped to make headway on Super Tuesday in Colorado and polling conducted just before the election showed she had the strongest chance of challenging Sanders in the state. But she was ultimately swept away by Biden and Bloomberg, two candidates she was forecast to beat.

Warren took home 17% of the vote, higher than the 15% she was expected to notch, according to a Magellan Strategies poll released last week. While she will win delegates in Colorado — 13, according to an unofficial tally — they won’t be enough to keep her on pace with Biden and Sanders.

Warren didn’t win a single Colorado county, though she had strong performances in Larimer, Boulder and Denver counties, where she took home more than 20% of the vote, according to results through Wednesday morning.

(Warren was set to exit the race on Thursday, The New York Times reported.)

MORE: Ahead of Super Tuesday, TV ad spending tops $9.4 million in Colorado thanks to one big spender

Bloomberg spent about $56 per Colorado vote on advertising

Bloomberg spent at least $8.9 million in Colorado on TV and Facebook ads alone, meaning he dropped at least $56 on each of the roughly 157,000 votes he had tallied, according to results the morning after the primary.

That per-vote spend was likely even higher given that Bloomberg also dropped big money on mailers, newspaper ads and billboards. He even took out a giant red billboard in downtown Denver that said “TRUMP SKIS IN JEANS,” hoping to appeal to Coloradans’ outdoorsy tendencies. He also hired more than 50 staffers in Colorado and opened field offices in each of the seven congressional districts.

Colorado was one bright spot for Bloomberg — he took home more than 20% of the vote — on a disappointing Super Tuesday for his campaign, one that ultimately prompted him to exit the race and throw his support to Biden.

Any delegates he won in Colorado will be reapportioned to other candidates. 

Colorado Sun staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun —

Desk: 720-432-2229

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.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul