Atlas Analysis: Explaining Colorado

Publish:  Sep 11, 2013

by Atlas Staff

Last night Democrats lost two highly targeted legislative recall elections in Colorado. Targeted for their support of Colorado’s comprehensive gun safety laws, state Senator Angela Giron and Senate President John Morse became the first Colorado legislators ever recalled from office. The defeats represent a hollow victory for the Colorado GOP and anti-gun safety advocates, since Democrats retain majority control of the state Senate and the state’s landmark gun violence prevention bills remain on the books.

Still, the loss of both Senate seats came as something of a surprise – particularly Giron’s, as her district was considered the safer of the two.

This election was, by definition, exceptional.

  • It was an unscheduled election initiated in an off year via recall petition, indicating a good deal of immediate anger in the activist base.
  • The unprecedented nature of the election led to several court decisions that confused the electorate and, among other things, disallowed voting by mail — the method historically preferred by Democratic voters vs. GOP voters (by 29.4% in SD-03 and 9.4% in SD-11 in 2012) — presenting Republicans with a dramatic advantage.
  • Turnout was incredibly low – the lowest in those districts since a 2011 statewide tax referendum. In both districts, turnout was more than 20 points lower than 2012 turnout, from 56.6% to 35.7% in SD-03 and from 41.5% to 21.3% in SD-11.

So what happened? At a glance, this:


The Republican victories were highly unusual in these reliably blue seats. According to NCEC and Daily Kos calculations, Democrats have been accustomed to winning the turf that now composes these districts by comfortable margins:


Giron and Morse even achieved 55.3% and 52.1%, respectively, within the lines of their current district when they were on the ballot in 2010. Their recall results of 44.0% and 49.0% are therefore surprising outliers. In the Colorado Springs–based SD-11, Democratic support hit its lowest level since the 2004 presidential election; in the Pueblo-based SD-03, Democratic performance was a whopping 10.9 points lower than at any point in the last decade.

Of course, outlying results can easily occur with small sample sizes. Low turnout was the main culprit in allowing Republicans to execute the recalls on Tuesday. Fewer voters went to the polls than in any regularly scheduled election in recent history — and at only a slightly higher rate than for the 2011 statewide referendum election on a sales and income tax increase.


In Giron’s SD-03, the 35.7% turnout of registered voters bested 2011’s figure of 30.3%, but it was still well below the midterm election turnout of 44.0% in 2010. In Morse’s SD-11, the 21.3% turnout was likewise between 2011’s 15.9% and 2010’s 29.3%. Presidential-year turnout was 20.9 points higher than recall turnout in SD-03 and 20.2 points higher in SD-11. The recalls thus have very little bearing on how we should think of the districts’ partisan compositions or how they will vote in 2014 and 2016. These recalls were decided by the districts’ super voters and a minority of riled-up Republicans (the 9,094 people who voted to recall Morse wouldn’t even have constituted 18% of the vote in 2012).

Another factor that made these recalls particularly hostile to Democrats was a controversial court decision last month that precluded the mailing of ballots to all voters, as provided for in Colorado state law. This virtually eliminated vote by mail in the recalls — a boon to Republicans, since mail ballots are disproportionately submitted by Democrats. Catalist data provides a look at which parties tended to vote by which methods in 2012:


The vast majority of all ballots cast in 2012 were absentee/mail ballots, helping Democrats achieve their victories in the state. However, yesterday in SD-03 only 696 ballots came in by mail, and only 756 in SD-11. No breakdown of who those ballots favored is available in SD-03, but in SD-11 they broke 489–267 against the recall. Analysis of SD-03 is hindered by Pueblo and El Paso Counties’ failure to distinguish between early in-person votes and Election Day in-person votes when reporting the results. However, various media outlets had the breakdown of early voters by party as of Monday night:


In SD-03, those proportions track well with the party breakdown of early in-person voters from 2012 — which was weighted toward Republicans. In SD-11, Republicans had a 6.9-point lead among early recall voters, which could have been nullified had mail ballots been more than a negligible share of the total vote.

Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the night was Giron’s loss by a margin greater than Morse’s, whose district is (on paper at least) less favorable to Democrats. While Morse’s district is 33.2% Democratic and 25.1% Republican but 41.7% other, in Giron’s district Democrats are 45.2% of registered voters, Republicans only 22.9% and other voters 31.9%. However, there may have been early signs that Giron was in more trouble than met the eye. Pueblo Democrats are notoriously conservative, at least by the party’s standards; they are known as blue-collar Democrats while Colorado Springs’s left is more traditionally progressive. Pueblo’s two Democratic representatives in the state House, Ed Vigil and Leroy Garcia, both opposed the gun laws when they passed back in February. The NRA also has a favorability spread of 53% to 33% in SD-03, according to a Public Policy Polling poll released today but conducted the weekend before the election. A full 20% of the signatures on the petition to recall Giron were from registered Democrats, indicating their soft support for her. In the end, Democratic defections were likely responsible for her loss. According to Public Policy Polling, 33% of Democratic respondents planned to vote “yes” on the recall.

An alternative suggested reason for Democrats’ losses is the influence of pro-gun outside groups like the National Rifle Association. However, as detailed in The Atlas Project’s recall preview, Democratic outside groups outraised and outspent pro-recall groups. As of the most recent campaign-finance reports, progressive groups had raised over $2.6 million and spent almost $2.3 million, while conservative interests raised less than $523,000 and spent less than $482,000:


The ad wars were equally lopsided. The most recent CMAG data, through September 9, show that Democrats aired 3,569 spots on broadcast television for the recall — 969 just in the campaign’s final week. In contrast, Republicans aired just 486 spots the entire year.

However, the nearly slanderous and highly inflammatory ads aired by anti-gun safety groups may have been the more memorable spots. There is great debate and conflicting evidence in the political science world about whether negative advertising works and/or drives down turnout, but the Colorado recalls may be evidence that these effects are real. Republican ads, focusing on Giron’s and Morse’s supposed associations with “East Coast liberals” to the exclusion of their constituents and their alleged desire to take away citizens’ guns may have resonated with the mood of the electorate. All of the ads Republicans aired were negative — including some of the nastiest of the cycle — but only 35.9% of Democratic ads were.

Even with their fundraising advantage, Democrats were unable to overwhelm the level of activism sustained by the Republicans responsible for triggering the recalls in the first place and the issue of stark drop-off in Democratic voters in non-presidential years.

Events in Colorado could reverberate across other states, but it is also important to keep the Colorado recalls in perspective. Despite the recall outcomes, Democrats still possess control of the state Senate. If Majority Leader Morgan Carroll takes over as Senate president, a gun-safety supporter will still hold the chamber’s top job. And, of course, this wasn’t a recall election for Colorado’s gun laws themselves, which remain on the books.

This election was also, by definition, exceptional. It was an unscheduled election initiated via recall petition, which meant there was a lot of immediate anger in the activist base. The unprecedented nature of the election also led to several court decisions that essentially made up election-administration rules as they went along — including the decision to disallow voting by mail, which likely led to understated Democratic support. In 2014, Democrats will still have the opportunity to take back these relatively blue districts. If voter turnout returns to normal and Democrats ride out this conservative fervor as they continue to govern over the next year and a half, by 2015 it could be as though these recalls never happened.