Over the next few days I’ll be conducting a little “inside baseball” look at voter registration numbers, turnout, historical trends, and a variety of other factors that will play a big role in determining both the course of action that both Republicans and Democrats take over the next 15 months as they battle to determine the 2012 outcome in this “purple” battleground state.
We begin with the big picture, a look at the overall number of registered voters in the state, divided only by party, since January 2004. All numbers are referenced from the Colorado Secretary of State’s statistics at the Elections Division.
The most current voter registration numbers show Republicans with a slight partisan advantage over Democrats, but with both parties falling increasingly behind the burgeoning unaffiliated segment (total registered voters):
This is a change from the time of the election in November 2010:
It is clear from both the graph and the monthly stats that while the number of Republicans and Democrats have fallen, partly due to regular adjustment from the Secretary of State’s office–more on that in a bit–there has been a tremendous surge in the number of registered unaffiliateds, nearly 35,000 voters in just nine months. In an off year.
Here is the July 2011 “active” voter registration breakdown for comparison:
The “active” vs. “inactive” debate usually surfaces before the election itself when polling firms release surveys that use a variety of potential methodologies to calculate a reliable sample. This occurred just last week, when a Public Policy Polling survey was heavily criticized for oversampling Democrats, when they hold no advantage among either “active” or total voter segments. Polling firms use a proprietary combination of voting trends, for example, identifying “likely” voters, or some other sampling method.
But leads in both voter categories can sometimes not mean victory, even when partisan ballots (but not results) are tabulated. The GOP held significant leads throughout the 2010 midterm elections in the partisan ballot count, but lost a U.S. Senate seat in a squeaker of an upset.
We’ll take a look at this “active”/”inactive” breakdown in more detail later in the week. For now, let’s be clear on our terms.
What does “inactive” mean?
I spoke with Rich Coolidge, communications director for the Secretary of State’s office, to fill us in on the voter registration breakdown.
Coolidge told me that until April 2008, when a new statewide voter registration system and digital database (SCORE) was completed, the old system was much more cumbersome when it came to purging bad information. This resulted in a significant time lag for data to transfer from county to county (such as when people moved in-state). This also meant that voters who became inactive–whether through death, felony, or leaving the state–were much harder to account for in a streamlined way. This accounts for the more dramatic jumps in the graph prior to 2008.
To become inactive, a registered voter must miss the latest even-year election, and fail to respond to a mailer sent out 90 days after the election requesting an update on whether the voter wishes to remain active. The voter remains registered, but will become reclassified as inactive. Only after four years of inactivity does a voter become dropped from the rolls, said Coolidge, according to Federal law. For example, a voter who missed the 2006 midterm election and would have become inactive in February 2007 as a result of not responding, would only have been expunged in February 2011.
Coolidge said that this initial action precipitated a lawsuit from the database implementation (Common Cause v. Buescher) alleging unlawful purging of voter rolls.
Inactivity and voter registration corrections aside, we can see that quite a bit has changed from early 2004.
Democrats have seen voter numbers go from just above 850,000 following the 2006 election jump to more than 1,050,000 by the 2008 election. President Barack Obama’s successful campaign can be directly credited for the nearly 25 percent growth in registered Democrats.
The GOP has not faired well. It’s once nearly insurmountable voter registration lead against Democrats and even unaffiliateds has simply vanished. Democrats held a voter registration advantage for more than a year, before a small, undoubtedly Tea Party-inspired uptick in voters in 2010 helped it retake a small partisan lead.
But the real story, without a doubt, is the rise of the unaffiliated voter in Colorado. While the Colorado-is-evenly-divided-into-thirds mantra is quaint political shorthand, a look at both the absolute voter registration numbers and the next graph, of the relative percentages of each voting bloc, tell a much different story.
Whether discussing the U.S. Senate race in 2010, the constant struggle for the Colorado House and Senate, or voter issues like referenda and constitutional amendments, everyone points to the necessity of taking the “independent” vote. Appealing to the non-politically aligned has become a science (targeted voter lists and massive databases maintained by both parties, like the Democrat’s Catalist and the GOP’s Voter Vault) that enable tactical messaging to steer certain voting segments toward a specific strategic goal. In other words, turning single, urban, unaffiliated female voters away from Ken Buck, and flipping the 2010 U.S. Senate battle from a referendum on the appointed Sen. Bennet that threatened the incumbent Democrat into a choice election that heavily disadvantaged his Republican challenger.
In the electoral climate pre-2004, Colorado Republicans could expect to do well simply by turning out their registered voters. They knew that Democrats required not only a good turnout from their base, but an extremely strong showing among the unaffiliateds in order to be competitive. Now, with both parties running neck-and-neck, base turnout has almost taken a back seat behind the “appeal” of this or that candidate to the “independents.” Even a slight 1 or 2 point advantage (or disadvantage) among this group in a campaign’s internal polling numbers can have everyone on both sides sweating bullets on election night, just as it did in 2010.
Colorado’s electoral history shows that its voters have had a strong “independent” streak for decades. While sending Republican majorities to the state legislature, voters managed to elect Democrats statewide numerous times (U.S. Senate, Governor). In other words, the state has been “purple” for a much longer time than just the last decade.
The big question in 2012 will be where along the spectrum of that particular hue will Colorado voters find themselves inclined. The state’s mixed 2012 midterm results indicate, as these graphs also point out, that this will be a difficult political battleground to decipher.
The rest of the week I’ll take a look at some more voter registration breakdowns, so stay tuned.
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