Colorado has been considered a swing state for several past presidential elections, but in 2020, it’s increasingly looking like the state will continue on a blue streak exhibited over the last three elections, experts say.
Polls conducted by several sources and published on 270towin show that in the months leading up to the election, most of the state favors Biden over current President Donald Trump on most policies.
“After voting primarily Republican from 1920-2004, the state has voted with the Democrats in the last three presidential elections, including Hillary Clinton's five-point margin in 2016,” according to 270towin.
Graph showing Colorado’s voting result history.
During the 2016 election, despite the state voting blue, the percentages between Republican and Democrat were narrow, with 43.4% of the population voting for Trump and 48.2% voting for Clinton.
Younger, college-educated people make up a majority of the booming population
Colorado’s shift from being a heavily red state into a swing state accelerated as the population increased by nearly 90 percent between 1980 and 2015, with much of the population growing in urban areas of the state, according to The Denver Post.
“In 1980, rural voters cast nearly 17 percent of the state’s total votes. Though the number of rural votes cast in 2016 increased by nearly 78 percent to 352,490, the percentage of rural votes among total votes dropped to 13 percent. In that same time period, the number of urban votes cast increased by 146 percent, to 2,427,757,” The Denver Post reported.
A big chunk of the newer residents in the state range in ages between 20 and 40, making up the key voting demographic that the Democrats need to sustain their power in Colorado, according to the state demography office.
According to Pew, younger and often unaffiliated voters tend to lean blue.
Bob Loevy, a retired political science professor from Colorado College and co-author of ”Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State,“ agreed that the growth in population in the state has been largely people between the ages of 18 and 40 who are ready to settle down, of which a majority are likely voting for Democratic candidates.
“Colorado isn’t a rural agricultural state like Kansas or Nebraska and it’s not an underpopulated Rocky Mountain state like Idaho. It’s an urban corridor reminiscent of Boston or Washington, just a little smaller,” Loevy said.
“Republicans have been running as anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ. That to me is the real reason Colorado has been slowly trending Democrat. It’s a trend that is clearly identifiable from the 80s to present day.”“It’s been a long, steady shift away from the Republicans as they become more strongly married to the religious right candidates,” Loevy said.
Graph depicting the net migration age for the state of Colorado between 2000 and 2010. (Colorado Department of Local Affairs)
Tom Cronin, also a retired political science professor from Colorado College and co-author of ”Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State,“ emphasized the recent lean toward blue is due to an influx of people moving into the urban areas of the state.
“Rural areas tend to lean more Republican and the urban areas are more Democrat or Independent/leaning Democrat,” Cronin said. “It’s just a reality nationwide, you see it everywhere. But the rural areas are not growing in population. Urban areas, like Denver and Boulder, are growing and they are attracting out-of-state, younger people who have college or advanced degrees.”
“People with college degrees or advanced degrees tend to be more Democrat or Independent as of late and that certainly wasn’t the case a few years ago, but it’s all changed,” Cronin added.
Colorado is leaning blue and the 'Gang of Four' helped it get there
Not only did the surging population in urban areas of the state contribute to Colorado’s left tilt, in 2004, an initiative supported by some of the wealthiest liberal and Democratic supporters in the state, known as the “Gang of Four,” created what is known as the Colorado Democracy Alliance.
Included in the “gang” is the state’s current governor, Jared Polis, who is also the first openly gay elected governor in history, according to Ballotpedia.
Polis became a self-made millionaire at age 23 after selling American Information Systems, an internet service provider he founded while in college, according to The Colorado Independent. Polis is reportedly worth over $300 million, according to Influence Watch.
The group also includes Pat Stryker, a billionaire whose family owned the Fortune-500 medical supply company Stryker Corporation; Tim Gill, who made half-a-billion dollars selling his stake in the software company he founded, and who has donated more money to LGBTQ causes than any other individual in U.S. history; and Rutt Bridges, a software developer and venture capitalist with centrist politics, according to Ballotpedia.
“For nearly 15 years, the Democracy Alliance has helped to raise significant resources to promote progressive ideas, impact media coverage, develop new leadership, create sophisticated civic engagement strategies, and engage young people and communities of color. In our collaborative giving strategy, an informed and engaged body of donors comes together to aggregate resources for focused investment, for which we have marshaled as much as $80 million per year,” according to the Democracy Alliance’s website.
Loevy said the “Gang of Four” significantly helped push the state to lean blue, despite it already heading in that direction.“There’s no question that the Gang of Four was undoubtedly helpful,” Loevy said. “The Democrats mainly gained control of the state legislature in 2004... Mainly because they gained control of the gerrymandering process for the 2000 Census. The combination of gaining control of gerrymandering as well as having plenty of money for the Democrats in the state legislature is a great one-two combination.”
“The Democrats also gained control of the redistricting process,” Loevy added. “That to me is important as to the work of the Gang of Four. It was perfect timing. They put money into Democratic campaigns just in time that the shift was well underway.”
Democrats and unaffiliated voters now make up a majority of the influential counties in the state
“A lot of people see it (Colorado) as cowboys and grazing horses. They see mountains, but actually, Colorado is one of the most urbanized states in the nation,” Loevy said. “It has one of the largest populations in the west. It’s an ideal place to live. You get a nice level plain where transportation is easy but just head west about 50 or 60 miles and you’re deep in the Rocky Mountains for recreation.”
The potential shift to blue also has much to do with two of the most influential counties in the state shifting from Republican to Democrat over the last 30 years, according to Loevy.
“Two suburban counties: Arapahoe and Jefferson counties. Thirty years ago, they were solid Republican,” Loevy said. “They are now consistently voting Democrat. Keep in mind, 60% of Colorado’s population lives in the Denver metropolitan area, the other 30% lives along the ‘front range’ which is the land at the foot of the mountains.”
The “front range” consists of cities such as Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Boulder.
“Colorado is an anomaly,” Cronin said. “We have about eight ski counties. They’re all small, maybe about 10,000 or 9,000 people, but you add them all up and they become a big suburb. They are part of rural Colorado but they all have become reliably Democratic voting. Why is that?”
“Well, because of higher educated people who live there, young college people tend to move there for a while and the workers are there are often Hispanic or migrants, and then some wealthy people make if their second or third home,” Cronin explained. “Oprah lives there, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise. Those seven or eight counties, what I call ‘ski counties’ are part of a huge suburb. Those counties have gone blue and that’s enough to have moved the dial blue, which is probably why Colorado is no longer considered a red state.”
“I think we are in a top handful in the nation of people who are not aligned with one party or the other,” Cronin continued. “Republicans have dipped in the last 10 years and Democrats mostly stayed the same but the biggest increase has been the Independent/Unaffiliated, as high as 40%.”
Cronin also noted the state’s high voter turnout, much due to their nearly perfected mail-in voting system, which will likely become a primary voting method for much of the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re also very high (voting) turnout,” Cronin said. “Voting by mail has been regularized without fraud of any kind over the last three election cycles. We love the vote by mail system.”
Will Colorado turn completely blue?
“Colorado could potentially be a solid blue state, but it’s not quite there yet,” Lovey said.“Those who argue that it is are responding mainly to the 2018 election, which did go very well for the Democrats,” Loevy continued.
“It ended up creating a situation in which the Democrats hold every statewide office except for one, which is Cory Gardner’s Senate seat.”“Many predict he lost that since he is up for re-election this fall,” Loevy said. “My view is yes, the pendulum has been swinging steadily toward the Democrats. 2018 was a big Democratic year everywhere and due to the unpopularity of Trump, we really can’t tell for sure whether the swing was induced by the national reaction to Trump or whether it’s based on more underlying factors.”
“My sentiment is, it’s definitely heading in that direction, but we don’t know for sure that it’s quite there yet. The Republicans still hold a lot of counties at the county commissioner level. They’re still within striking distance of gaining control of the Colorado Senate. So if things start to swing a different way nationally, it’s my contention that the Republicans will be able to come back,” Loevy said.
But Loevy believes it will take a big change on the Republican front to gain back what was lost to the Democrats.“In the decade of the 1980s, Colorado was 52.4% Republican,” Loevy said. “Now, that was the age of Reagan and the older Bush, who was unusually popular in Colorado. Things started to go wrong for the Republicans in the 1990s, mainly under Clinton’s presidency. We were highly affected by the presidential elections when Republicans dropped to 49.4%.”
“Now, in the early 2000s, Republicans staged a little bit of a comeback. The younger Bush did well in Colorado and it shifted back to 50.4% Republican,” Loevy said. “Just finished the decade out from 2010 to 2018, now it’s 47.8% Republican. Looking at every race for governor, president and Senate throughout the decades, it shifts from 52% Republican in the 1980s to 48% Republican in the 2010s, which means the state is now 52% Democratic.”
Loevy believes that there is no question that there has been a shift, but the question is if it will going to keep going that way.
“My prediction will be the Democrats will hold their position, although, a great deal will depend on the presidential election. If Trump is swamped nationally and badly defeated, the Democrats could make additional gains in the state legislature and take the Senate seat. Once they have the other Senate seat, every statewide office will be held by a Democrat,” Loevy said.
As for Cronin, he said if the state voted tomorrow, it would most likely vote blue.“I would say 54% for Biden and 45% for Trump, something like that,” Cronin posited. “There would be a comfortable margin. I don’t see evidence of a strong Trump campaign going on here,” Cronin added. “There don’t seem to be too much TV ads.”
Republican strategists see ‘insurmountable’ challenges to winning back state
Two significant factors allowed Colorado to turn the state purple over the last few years: the changing demographic, and “Donald Trump,” Floyd Ciruli, a Denver pollster and political analyst, told 5280 Magazine.
“He wasn’t particularly popular here in 2016,” David Flaherty, the CEO of Louisville-based Magellan Strategies, a conservative political research firm, told 5280 Magazine. “He was even less popular in 2018. To be honest, we think the challenges are nearly insurmountable for the Republican Party at this time.”
“It’s been a tough place for the Republican party to hold voters when the party has gone so strongly to the religious right,” Loevy added.
Experts like Loevy and Cronin say if Republicans want to win the state back, they will have to distance themselves from the current president, whose disapproval rating is at nearly 60%, according to 5280, as well as rethink their stance on important issues to the younger demographic that has now taken over the urban areas of the state — including abortion and LGBTQ rights.
Any potential Republican candidates will have a tricky task ahead of them that will likely include distancing themselves from the current administration without alienating enthusiastic Trump supporters, according to 5280 Magazine.
“Republicans need to gain two seats in order to retake control of the upper chamber and disrupt the complete power Democrats have over lawmaking in Colorado,” according to the Colorado Sun. “Along with a 19-16 majority in the Senate, Democrats hold a 41-24 advantage in the state House and Gov. Jared Polis isn’t up for reelection until 2022. At best this year, Republicans are looking to regain a couple of House seats they lost in 2018.”
Protest movements and COVID-19 could put the state in a tug-of-war
Despite his prediction, however, Loevy did say that protests across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd that have in some instances devolved into violence and looting could have the opposite effect for the state.
“On the other hand, if Trump stages a comeback here in Colorado, if the civil rights demonstrations that turned into riots have the effect that I think they’re going to have and Trump either does well enough or even wins, the Republicans will possibly score some gains with him,” Loevy speculated.
“Considering the riots, well, I think they have shown that at the moment in the polls, Trump has gained four points since the riots happened,” Loevy said. “I would even say there’s potential here for real gains by Trump and possibly a national victory but I doubt he’ll gain Colorado even if he gains the presidential seat. That’s what happened in 2016.”
According to Cronin, the president has garnered criticism in the state of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it could potentially harm his chances to see a second term.
“If the COVID-19 virus was not here, Trump would have had a better chance,” Cronin said.