24 May 2012

Colorado Is The Make Or Break State In 2012

Several respected political commentators have identified Colorado as the marginal state that a winning Presidential candidate must win to capture an electoral college victory in 2012. This status, as a swing state rather than a Republican stronghold, has taken place mostly in the time period after I moved here in 1996 during which the urban economy has diversified and there has been a great deal of both conservative and liberal migration into the state from elsewhere. A relatively well organized and financed Democratic party leadership and liberal support network attributable mostly to a dozen or two really strong leadership and donor figures and iconic candidates have also been critical to this shift.

The most recent poll from CNN today in the President race showed President Obama with a four percentage point lead in the Presidential race over Romney, as of last week, which is very similar to the national figure and the figure in other swing states, with a margin of error of about +/- three percentage points.

What Makes Colorado Politics Distinctive?

Most Coloradans are not natives and we don't show much of a bias towards natives in our voting behavior either. Our politics are cleaner than they are in most states and not nearly as controlled by an entrenched old guard. This is due in part to a fairly comprehensive package of good government measures and favorable political conditions. Many of the pieces of these good government institutions have individually serious flaws, but the overall picture is one of a broad commitment in the political culture to transparency and efficiency. I list some of the more important institutions and political conditions below, as well as some of the key points of unfinished business in which our institutions clearly are flawed.

Political Conditions

* a state population and geographic area that are middling compared to other states and that have not outstripped the "design parameters" of state government institutions,
* a state capitol easily monitored by the press and public in our major economic center,
* few opportunities for interjurisdictional arbitrage compared to most states since our major population centers are not near the state's boundaries,
* healthy state level civil society institutions representing all major components of the political spectrum to facilitate collective efforts to advance broad based legislative, policy and movement based agendas outside the framework for formal political parties (e.g. the Independence Institute, Focus on the Family, the Gill Foundation, the Piton Institute, the Bell Foundation, the Colorado Progressive Coalition, an active political blogosphere, etc.)
* a lack of a dominant political party in recent years due to demographic shifts and a changing state economy,
* the absence of a dominant statewide religious affiliation,
* strong and largely stable regional hetrogenity in political identity taht also limits gerrymandering opportunities,
* multiple sustained periods of economic prosperity, good Denver Mayors, and good, but moderate Governors,
* a political history that is more Yankee than Southern,
* until very recently, a highly competitive mass media market in metropolitan Denver,
* a better educated than average population,
* a multiracial rather than a monoracial or biracial ethnic makeup,
* no meaningful history of slavery,
* a relatively short state political history in which the state has had a much smaller population for most of that time period.

Some of the negative political conditions in the state, however, include a strong, relatively recent (1920s) history of Ku Klux Klan domination of Colorado politics, an excessive number of demogauges, and a lack of political will to acknowledge that taxes are a necessary way to fund governmental services that contribute real value to the state by significant proportions of our population, and the perpetual isolation of some outlying areas of the state from political power.

Electoral Process Institutions

* fairly short term limits for almost all state and local offices,
* widespread use of mail in voting, early voting and voting centers that allow people to vote in person at more than one location,
* the availability of ballot issues at the state level to break Gordian knots in the legislative process,
* fairly open ballot access mediated by political parties that have considerable power via the causus process in most cases,
* better informed decisions in the nomination process for down ticket, low profile elected partisan offices (in which the nomination process often effectively decides the outcome in the general election since the smaller geographic areas involved in these races often have a dominant political party) as a result of the ability of the caucus process to provide information to the members of the party involved in the nomination process that is not carried out very effectively by the media,
* the power of political parties to fill legislative vacancies (e.g. when they arise due to personal scandals involving the incumbents) with interim elected officials chosen by the party of the politician vacating the office,
* blue ribbon commission reapportionment rules for most state elected offices,
* strong campaign finance rules.

The most glaring institutional problem with the electoral process in the state, which is typical of most U.S. states, is its reliance on unitary partisan elected officials for election administration. Another problem is that constitutional provisions that make it too easy to get technically flawed ballot issues with a basic thrust that is population before voters. Yet another concern is the exceeding high procedural barriers to re-election faced by elected officials who change parties in the middle of a term of office.

Institutions Related To Governmental Operations and Transparency

* a fairly small, part-time legislature,
* limits on personal financial gain for politicians,
* comprehensive lobbying regulations,
* broad and effective open records and open meetings laws,
* strict state civil service restrictions,
* signficiant Gubinatorial authority to reorganize the state government organizational chart,
* merit appointment of all state judges with little local political input,
* state constitutional limitations on tinkering with the details of the income tax laws,
* a line item veto for the Governor on state spending,
* meaningful legislative oversight of new state regulations,
* joint legislative rules in the bicameral legislature including a joint budget committee,
* a strong legislative services office role in the legislative process (drafting bills, doing constituent service work, and generating revenue and expense estimates on a bipartisan basis),
* pioneering work in providing online access to matters of state and local government,
* Sunset laws,
* a strong commitment to adopting well drafted proposed uniform state laws,
* a legislatively appointed state auditor
* strong limitations on the Governor's direct authority over both K-12 and higher education,
* independently elected state executive branch officials (the state treasurer, secretary of state and Attorney General) with fairly weak bureacratic resources and fairly narrow mandates.

The most glaring institutional problems with governmental operations and transparency is an overconstrained state budget, in which it is almost impossible to comply with all pertinent state constitutional requirements, federal mandates, state laws, and political processes during periods of declining revenues; there is more than one way to solve the problem but something has to give.

Local Government Institutions

* a non-partisan consolidated City and County government in Denver, the state's largest central city,
* home rule protections for local governments,
* strong limitations on the authority of the elected state school board over local school boards,
* meaningful school choice options within the public K-12 school system,
* well functioning non-partisan multijurisdictional local government institutions to provide services such as water basin management, public transportation, cultural institutions and sports stadiums, criminal prosecutions, general jurisdiction courts, vocational education services, special education services, suburban fire protection, suburban library services, and surburban park and recreation services,
* popular checks on elected officials via easy ballot access for recall elections and citizen initiatives at the local level,
*healthy  local government civil society institutions such as Denver's neighborhood associations, parent-teacher associatioons, organizations to address homelessness, and Glendale's local political parties to facilitate public participation in governmental activity at the local level,
* limited local government discretion over the details of property tax administration.

The most glaring fault with the organization of local government is the imbalance between authorized sources of revenues for local governments and the demand for services that flow from the authorized tax bases. There are also problems with institutions such as the conduct of partisan elections for technocratic positions like county coroners.

General Considerations

In sum, our politicans and our voters have shown bipartisan support for a variety of good government proposals. The political culture in Colorado's General Assembly, while it has recently experienced a rough spot, is also generally more collegial than in most states.

Tough taxpayer bill of rights provision in the state constitution, and other constitutional and statutory limits on government spending and authority, mute the effectiveness of many common attackes on liberal politicians, because in Colorado liberal politicans don't have the power to implement the kind of fiscal agenda that many liberals would favor without voter approval. Fairly geographically localized islands of and clines of political preferences in the state limit the usefulness of gerrymandering in Colorado. Colorado's adult population is better educated than the average state, despite the fact that the states lags in producing its college graduates locally.

The state's swing state status reflects a regionally diverse internal state geography, with liberal strongholds like Denver and Boulder, Southern style conservative strongholds like Colorado Springs, moderately liberal resort areas and college towns, mostly conservative rural communities on the Front Range, libertarian leaning rural populations on the Western Slope, conservative exurbanites, moderate first ring suburbanites, and Hispanics who trace their roots to before the places they live were part of the United States in places like Pueblo and the San Luis Valley.

While organized labor is weak in Colorado relative to former manufacturing centers in the Northeast and Rust Belt, its high level of organization and capacity to mobilize people and moderate amounts of political money mean it is still an important part of the Democratic party coalition here. Our conservatives embrace both social liberalism and economic proposals shared by Republicans, but ultimately, the conservative coalition in Colorado is a bit more economically conservative than socially conservative relative to conservatives nationally. While the numbers shift from month to month, an intuitive mental model in which active registered voters are 35% Republican, 30% unaffiliated, and 35% Democratic, while not quite right, is a pretty practical way to roughly summarize the long term average situation.

Where Are And Who Are The Swing Voters In Colorado?

Where Are Swing Voters In Colorado?

Ultimately, the make or break point within the state in a close race, when it comes to winning the state's electoral votes, boils down the winning over unaffiliated, middle class (but not upper middle class), fairly politically apathetic voters with enough of a sense of connection and civic duty to at least register to vote, who live in first ring suburbs of metropolitan Denver-Boulder.

Who Are Swing Voters In Colorado Demographically?

The generic and "average" swing voter in Colorado is white, not Hispanic, has some college but didn't graduate from college, isn't in a union, owns a modest home with a mortage in an older suburb, is neither a young adult nor elderly, and is nominally a part of some branch of Christianty but is fairly irregular in church atendance. Relatively few read a newspaper or news magazine or listen to national public radio on a regular basis.  Most are not Colorado natives.  Most have kids. At least one person in their household has a job and every adult in the household probably owns a car. But, they aren't insulated from economic hardship and are economically insecure. If they haven't been divorced themselves, they know someone who has been divorced pretty well.

Who Are Swing Voters In Colorado Politically?

The political views of these swing voters, when pressed to express them, are volatile, but fairly distinct for men versus women (not infrequently in the same household or neighborhod) who often cancel each other out at the polls. These voters tend to vote much more often when the stakes are high (such as during a relatively close President race like this year's) than when the stakes are low. These voters are driven more by character and personality and the general economic situation and ideosyncratic considerations, than by policy platforms to which they have weak commitments. They don't know a lot about politics or public policy in general, aren't well informed about candidates in down ticket races, and don't know much about any ballot issues other than the one or two have have received intense media attention. These voters are as fuzzy about theological and Christian doctrine as they are about politics. They decide who to vote for relatively late, often at the kitchen table while completing a recently received mail in ballot a couple of weeks before the actual election day. They have low levels of confidence and trust in politicians and political institutions generally. They don't go to political party caucuses or political rallies, don't donate more than trivial amounts of money to candidates, don't volunteer for political campaigns, and don't put partisan bumper stickers on their cars.

These are the people who will effectively select the next President of the United States of America. Swing voters in Colorado may be meek, but they decide who will inherit the Presidency.


Dave Barnes said...

Then why is there no polling data for CO?

andrew said...

I saw it on a glowing rectangle in the lobby of my office building while having lunch and didn't go changing the link.