Less than 40,000 voters in seven pivotal Colorado counties were the difference between a clean Republican Party sweep of statewide offices and incumbent Democrats holding onto the state’s top two offices, according to an analysis by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News.
Instead, those voters split, allowing Republican Cory Gardner to win a U.S. Senate seat by knocking off incumbent Democrat Mark Udall, while Democrat John Hickenlooper held on to the governor’s office for another term by turning back Republican Bob Beauprez.
“By and large, most voters are in one camp or another,” said political analyst Eric Sondermann. “But there is always going to be that swing of 4 or 5 percent that is willing to go back and forth.”
The analysis looked at voting results in three swing counties: Jefferson, Arapahoe and Larimer. And it examined two Democratic strongholds, Denver and Boulder County, and two Republican bastions, El Paso and Douglas counties.
With votes still being tabulated Thursday, Gardner beat Udall by about 48,000 votes statewide and Hickenlooper defeated Beauprez by about 58,000 votes out of about 2 million ballots cast. A switch of less than 30,000 voters would have changed the results.
Here what the analysis shows:
So far this century, three counties have been key to winning statewide elections in Colorado. They are evenly divided between Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters. The last time the state split along party lines in major statewide races was 2004. Then Republican President George W. Bush won Colorado in the presidential vote and Democrat Ken Salazar beat Republican Pete Coors for an open U.S. Senate seat. Both winners swept the three counties.
This election, Gardner squeaked out narrow victories in Jefferson and Larimer counties, while Udall won the third county, Arapahoe. Beauprez handily lost all three to Hickenlooper.
The result was that Gardner got about 18,000 more votes than gubernatorial candidate Beauprez and Hickenlooper received about 22,000 more votes than Udall in the three counties.
Sondermann said ticket splitting by voters has become more rare than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
“There’s been a sea change and not just in Colorado, but around the country where the unaffiliated or independent voters is no longer quite the king,” he said. “Both parties are so much more focused on their base voters.”
Both Gardner and Hickenlooper did better jobs in winning those voters and not losing as badly on their opponent’s turf. In El Paso and Douglas counties, Gardner pulled in about 7,000 more votes than Beauprez. However, he did even slightly better in the Democratic strongholds of Denver and Boulder County, garnering 8,000 more votes than Beauprez.
The same trends emerged between the two Democrats. Hickenlooper and Udall won about the same number of votes in Boulder County, Udall’s home base. However, Hickenlooper got about 8,000 more votes in Denver, his home ground.
But again it was how the two did in the Republican strongholds that made a bigger difference. Hickenlooper received almost 11,000 more votes than Udall in El Paso and Douglas counties combined.
Sondermann said there are multiple reasons for why voters split their tickets this year.
“It’s a combination of some voters being dissatisfied with Democrats on the federal level, unhappy with President Obama, where voting for a Republican was OK on the senate line,” Sondermann said. “But they were still OK with Hickenlooper’s leadership of the state.
As a result, Gardner got 34,000 more votes than Beauprez in the seven counties. Beauprez lost by 58,000 to Hickenlooper statewide, according to the latest vote totals.
Hickenlooper, in turn, got 39,000 more votes than Udall in the seven counties. Udall lost by about 48,000 votes to Gardner.
In addition, candidates turned some voters off with their campaign strategies, Sondermann said. For Udall, it was the one-issue attacks on Gardner over abortion. For Beauprez, it was equating the IUD birth control device to abortion and his last-minute TV ads warning of “crime and mayhem” if Hickenlooper was re-elected.
“That was not the right closing,” Sondermann said. “Was that worth 20,000 votes or 25,000 votes of the final margin between Hickenlooper and Beauprez?
“I don’t know.”