As you may have noticed — or, I don’t know, maybe you haven’t — there have been two recently released polls in the upcoming Denver mayor’s race. 

And, in each case, the leader is … no one. I don’t mean because two or three have left the pack and are tied for the lead. I mean, no one is in the lead, or close to it, because, well, that’s the situation we’re here to discuss today.

Actually, the leader in the clubhouse, and by some distance, is “undecided” — at 58% in one poll and 59% in the other. And while these choices weren’t available, I’d guess if the polls had offered “No freaking idea” or “What mayoral election?”, both would have checked in at greater than 50%, too.

In fact, in one of the polls, the only media poll, every candidate out of 17 in play — yes, out of 17, which tells us that at least 17 people know there is an election upcoming — the three leaders each came in at a lowly 5%, followed closely by the margin of error, which is at 4.9%. If you’re confused by how margin of error works, the quick answer in this case is that it means the candidates at 5% could actually just as easily be at 0.1%. To put it another way, do you think 5% of Denverites — not including Sun readers, of course — could name at least five candidates?

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Which brings us to at least three questions:

Why are so many people undecided?

And what, if anything, will get voters to finally pick up on one and leave the other 16 behind?

And when/if there are breakout candidates, who are they likely to be?

To answer the first question, we first have to know why there are 17 candidates, generally described as the most in modern Denver history. I’m not sure when “modern” began, but I’d think it should be considered around the time when the Broncos arrived in town.

There are many reasons for the huge field. For one, only 300 signatures are required to make it onto the ballot. The typical Facebook user — come on, I Googled this — has 338 “friends,” meaning the guy next door who never leaves his porch could very well be on the ballot. There are more than 700,000 people in Denver. You can do the math. 

And for the first time, there is public funding through the Fair Elections Fund — which matches contributions of $50 or less at a ratio of 9 to 1 for candidates who agree to fundraise within restrictions — meaning, if the system works as hoped, a candidate wouldn’t need to raise a huge amount of money to be competitive.

For another reason, since Mayor Michael Hancock is term-limited after 12 years in office and since there is no one who looks remotely like an “heir apparent” — we don’t do much in the way of machine politics in Denver — the race was bound to be wide open. That doesn’t mean it had to be so open you could drive a 16th Street Mall bus through it, at least back when 16th Street Mall buses ran all the way through the mall. But still, wide open.

And for yet another, if you look through the list of candidates, you see a number of people who have been involved in any number of political races. So, why not Denver mayor? It’s a good job. It’s a big job. The mayor earns more than the governor, and some say the mayor is even more powerful than the governor. (Uh, not necessarily; who do you have in a runoff between Jared Polis and Michael Hancock?)

And every so often the mayor turns out to be John Hickenlooper, who goes from unemployed geologist to barkeep/entrepreneur to mayor to governor to failed presidential candidate to senator. Even Hick’s first chief of staff — see: Bennet, Michael — can become a senator and, yes, a failed presidential candidate.

But the reason people are undecided is not simply that there are so many candidates. There are also so many important issues facing us with so few clear solutions — try crime, homelessness, racial justice, climate change and affordable housing for starters, and tell me which candidate (or which city, for that matter) has landed any of those. It certainly makes it hard to stand out. Like, I’m pretty sure arresting the homeless isn’t getting anyone elected. Funny ads on parking meters — if you’re old enough to remember Hick’s first run — could propel a candidate, but we haven’t seen anything like it yet.

The next question: How will voters decide? There’s bad news here and then there’s more bad news. With the races so wide open, the candidates who can spend the most money in these final weeks on advertising and on getting out the vote will, of course, have the advantage. That’s true in nearly every election. But as we know, the business-supported PACs eventually arrive with money for TV advertising, and now that they’re here, the goal for most is to try to ensure that no one too progressive gets the mayor’s job. 

But the worse news is that with 17 candidates and with the rule being that if no one gets 50% of the vote — and you can be sure no one will — there will be a runoff between the top two candidates. It’s likely that real attention won’t turn to the race until we get down to those two, and by that time, the best two or three or more candidates, by anyone’s rating, might already have been eliminated. That’s one reason you may see growing support for ranked-choice voting in Denver.

In 2011, when Hancock won the open seat for mayor in an 11-person field, the three leading candidates each received approximately 25% of the vote. In this race, we could see candidates with a mere 15%, or even less, make it to a runoff. And while Denver elections are officially a nonpartisan affair, only one mayoral candidate, Andy Rougeot, is a registered Republican, and he is a self-funder with deep pockets. If he makes the final two, which is certainly possible, that means the remaining Democrat in heavily Democratic Denver would probably be the runaway favorite. If so, that would reduce any benefit of a runoff.

So, who are the candidates most likely to break through? You usually don’t need to be much of a pundit to figure that out. The names we already know are usually the names of the candidates with the best chance, but in two polls, no one has received even 8% of the votes. We’ve never seen anything quite like it.

I have no clear idea, but because we’re here, we can probably look at the fundraising and look at the PACs and look at who has run before and fairly safely predict that Kelly Brough, Leslie Herod, Mike Johnston, Debbie Ortega, Chris Hansen, Lisa Calderon and Rougeot all have a decent chance. I could also say it’s long past time for a woman to become mayor, but I could also say the same for Colorado governor or senator.

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If you’re looking to eliminate people, Hancock’s chief of staff and longtime Colorado politico, Alan Salazar — who, like Hancock, is neutral in the race — recommends trying to figure out which candidates are truly interested in being mayor and not running because it’s the best political job currently available. I’d advise you to be wary of anyone suggesting that a major problem can be solved by either an audit or a blue-ribbon panel.

And the best reason to get interested in the election sooner rather than later is that the last time an incumbent Denver mayor lost was in 1983 when Federico Peña replaced Bill McNichols. McNichols, I might mention, was running for his fourth term and, historians tell us, lost mainly because of a 29-inch Christmas Eve snowfall. 

In other words, whoever wins as mayor — whether or not there’s a heavy spring snow — might well be with us for a long, long while.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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Mike Littwin

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @mike_littwin