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Nicolais: Election lessons learned? Don’t count on it

Odd-year elections provide very little insight into what will drive Colorado’s electorate in 2022 or 2024

Even as results poured in across Colorado and the country on Tuesday night, pundits tripped over themselves to interpret what lessons should be drawn from the election.

On the Democratic side, progressives called for even more liberal policies. Their moderate colleagues advocated a more restrained approach. Republicans claimed their message broke through and illuminated the path to victory in 2022 and 2024.

In truth, there is almost nothing to be learned from last week’s election. At least not much to help candidates hoping to win office next year.

Mario Nicolais

The electorate that just voted and the one that will vote in 2022 are dramatically different. Odd-year elections traditionally receive a much smaller percentage of voter participation than even-year elections. This year was no different.

Only about 1.5 million Coloradans voted in 2021. That is about 38.44% of active voters. In 2020, those numbers stood at almost 3.3 million or 86.67% (presidential race). In 2018 they eclipsed 2.5 million or 74.91% (gubernatorial race).

The dramatic difference is not only in raw numbers, but in the partisan performance. Republicans outperformed their state registration numbers by a significant amount in 2021. They comprise 25.7% of active voters but accounted for 32.6% of the vote on Tuesday night.

Democrats outperformed registration as well, though by a smaller margin — 28.9% of active voters compared to 31.0% of ballots cast in 2021.

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Despite a jump between 2019 and 2021 of more 150,000 total votes, and eclipsing Republicans in an odd-year election for the first time, unaffiliated voters did not come close to either their registration or even-year turnout numbers.

If anything, the election just provided a little evidence to determine the most consistent and enthusiastic voters in the electorate. Anyone voting in an odd-year election is very likely to vote again in an even-year.

But figuring out exactly what drove this particular set of voters is both difficult and unhelpful. Some were driven by mask-mandate and vaccination angst, others by their feelings toward President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress, and still others by localized school board races and critical race theory. 

Not only is it incredibly hard to parse out multi-causal turnout patterns, but it tells you next to nothing about future elections with different electorates.

That is exactly why the director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, a national leader in the field, openly questioned whether election polls could be consistently accurate or should be undertaken at all.

Determining an accurate sample selection from election to election to conduct polls is nearly impossible under current circumstances. That is particularly true in a world where news cycles, and corresponding electorate behavior, change in 280-character tweets and flashing chyrons. 

What is important to drive people to the polls today will be different next week, next month and certainly next year.

Trying to formulate a campaign plan based on this election is a fool’s errand. For example, any Colorado Republican attempting to replicate Glenn Youngkin’s strategy will find it difficult to win a primary while eschewing former President Donald Trump.

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Furthermore, such a strategy ignores the near certain fact that Youngkin would have lost if the election had been held in an even-year.

I am sure to hear protestations from partisans on either side. People legitimately caught up in an electoral ebb or flow, operatives hoping to use the latest results to spur another pay day or even a member of the media who understands horse races sell more ad space.

That does not change the underlying truth. What happened last week will have very little impact on what happens next November. Or in 2024. That is the only real lesson to be learned from this election.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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