Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beyond the Enthusiasm Gap: What the Caucuses Tells Us About the Political Environment in Colorado

In the wake of Tuesday night's surprising Colorado caucus results, many are wondering whether frigid temperatures should be blamed for a lower-than-expected turnout. However, taking a look at the numbers behind Rick Santorum's victory in Colorado, it becomes clear that the results actually reflect moderate Republican voters cooling on the Republican field, and that bodes poorly for the GOP in a state where moderate voters hold the keys to the kingdom.

Following an embarrassingly low turnout in Nevada last week, Colorado Republican officials predicted a turnout exceeding 70,000. As it turned out, turnout fell about 4,000 short of those projections, leading to widespread conjectures from national pundits over whether the low turnout was indicative of a lack of enthusiasm for the GOP field, or whether some other factor -- like the weather -- was responsible.

To answer that question, these pundits should be looking beyond the overall turnout number at where turnout numbers changed since 2008.

That Republicans did not meet their turnout goal is attributable in large part to underperformance in Arapahoe, Jefferson, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver and Douglas counties in the Denver-Boulder metro area. In Denver, for instance, over 4,000 Republicans caucused in 2008. This week, just over 3,200 Denver Republicans caucused. In Arapahoe County, turnout declined by about 20 percent. These counties -- populated largely by moderate, affluent Republican voters -- also happened to vote most-heavily for Romney.

That turnout was low in these moderate counties is consistent with our polling, which found that likely Colorado voters describing themselves as moderate or liberal Republicans were less enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than conservative Republicans, moderate Democrats, or liberal Democrats.

To the extent that any Colorado counties actually saw an uptick in voter turnout, these districts were largely rural, traditionally conservative communities, and they generally voted for Rick Santorum.

Mesa County on Colorado's Western Slope, for example, saw an uptick in turnout of over 50 percent from 2008. The traditional conservative stronghold also went for Rick Santorum by double digits this week.

The small rural counties on the Eastern Plains, which voted most heavily for Mike Huckabee in 2008, also saw increases in voter turnout. Kit Carson County, for example had a 27 percent increase in turnout, and voted nearly 4-1 for Santorum. Prowers County, on the border with Kansas, had a 34 percent increase in turnout from '08, and voted over 2-1 for Santorum. This trend held, for the most part, across the state's rural Eastern Plains.

It's worth noting that turnout did not increase in every county that voted for Santorum, but the fact that surges in caucus turnout were so concentrated in conservative areas does suggest that the party's right-wing base is far more enthusiastic and engaged in the primary process than moderate Republicans.

We've seen this haunt Colorado Republicans in the recent past. In 2010, the party's right wing propelled Ken Buck to the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Buck's support for the Personhood ballot initiative, which will be on the ballot again in 2012, and his conservative credentials endeared him to Tea Party groups and Evangelical voters, but his ideological rigidity turned off moderate independent voters and ultimately lead to his defeat.

If Republicans plan to win in a state like Colorado, where independent voters are a third of the electorate, their nominee will need to pass muster with moderates. The fact that moderates largely stayed home this week means the party's right wing will have a greater say in Republican party politics this year, and that's a cold hard truth for Republican officials.