Viewers watching Colorado returns on Election Night received a skewed impression of just how results were going at the top of the ticket.
While Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner appeared to be beating Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in perhaps even a landslide, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez looked to be edging Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in a race that remained too close at midnight to call.
But with most of the counting concluded Friday, Hickenlooper held a wider margin over Beauprez, 49 percent to 46 percent, than Gardner did over Udall, 48.4 percent to 46 percent. Each was different than first perceived as a result of slow vote counting in the Democratic strongholds of Denver and Boulder.
Fewer than 40,000 voters in seven key Colorado counties were the difference between a clean Republican Party sweep of all statewide offices, and both Hickenlooper and Udall holding onto their seats, according to an analysis by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News.
Instead, those voters split their tickets, choosing both Gardner and Hickenlooper.
“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 I-News 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.
As of Friday’s counting, 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 fewer than 30,000 voters could have changed either result.
Here what the analysis showed:
So far this century, the three swing 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 its ticket in major statewide races was 2004. 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 received about 18,000 more votes than Beauprez in the three counties, while Hickenlooper picked up about 22,000 more votes than Udall.
Sondermann said ticket splitting by voters has become less frequent in recent decades.
“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, as well as 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 hometown.
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 analyzed. 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.”