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Sizing Up the 2020 Colorado Democratic Presidential Primary

According to local experts, Bernie Sanders is poised to win Colorado’s Democratic presidential primary on Super Tuesday. But there is still plenty to watch for as the returns come in.

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If the experts and polls are to be believed—and when have they ever led us astray?—Colorado primary voters will be feeling the Bern on Super Tuesday. 

That the 78-year-old Vermont senator and self-identified democratic socialist is favored to take the Centennial State shouldn’t be surprising. He defeated Hillary Clinton in Colorado’s 2016 caucus by a margin of 60 to 40 percent. He has a not-insignificant ground operation here—his senior adviser and speechwriter, David Sirota, is local, while Pilar Chapa, the executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party, acts as his state director. Bernie’s campaign has also hosted more than 1,000 events across the state and raised more than $3 million from Coloradans since the start of the campaign, according to a recent press release. And of course, you can’t discount his enthusiastic fan base, which has propelled him to the top of a crowded and qualified field. 

“Colorado has a long history of picking the non-establishment candidate,” says Laura Chapin, principal of LKC Consulting LLC, on why she believes Bernie will win the state’s primary. “Insurgent candidates are kind of a Colorado tradition, and I don’t think this year is any different.”  

A survey released last week from Magellan Strategies, a Colorado-based political polling firm, confirms what every expert interviewed for this story said: Bernie has the best chance of winning Colorado on Super Tuesday. The survey, which was conducted in late February and polled 500 Democratic and unaffiliated voters who have voted or are likely to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, found Sanders in the lead with 27 percent, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with 15 percent, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 12 percent (although he dropped out of the race on Sunday evening), former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg both at 11 percent, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 6 percent (who dropped out and endorsed Biden on Monday night). Fifteen percent of respondents were undecided. 

David Flaherty, CEO and founder of Magellan Strategies, said in an interview last week that he isn’t surprised by the survey’s results. “For a long time, Bernie has had a following here,” he says. Flaherty also points out that Bernie’s key demographic—voters ages 18 to 34—is only growing in Colorado, and this group has been turning up in historic numbers in recent years. In the 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections, voters under 34 made up one-quarter of all votes, and that has benefited Democrats. “Folks who are 44 and under, when you combine the two younger age groups, they overwhelmingly want different things and a different type of change than someone who is 55 and over,” says Flaherty. “And they’re engaging more than they ever have.” 

But just because Bernie is favored to bring home the win on Tuesday doesn’t mean you shouldn’t return your ballot or vote for who you think is the best nominee. Take the advice of Michal Rosenoer, executive director of Emerge Colorado, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office: “Vote your heart in the primary and vote your head in the general.” 

Plus, there are plenty of other interesting stories that will unfold as the state votes in its first presidential primary in 20 years. From the race to come in second (and third) to how unaffiliated voters will cast their ballots, these are some of the storylines we’ll be watching. 

Could we see an Elizabeth Warren surge?

Both the Magellan Strategies survey and a Data for Progress poll released last week show something that we haven’t seen yet in the early voting states—a second-place finish from progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren. (A new Data for Progress poll released on Super Tuesday after Buttigieg and Klobuchar dropped out shows a slight shift in the field, with Sanders in the lead at 32 percent, Warren at 21 percent, Biden at 18 percent, and Bloomberg at 16 percent.)

Warren, who opened her Denver field office in December and has a host of local endorsements under her belt, started out strong in the race but has seen support wane as Sanders’ has increased. A second-place finish here—especially if she gets above the 15 percent of votes by congressional district or statewide and secure a portion of the 67 pledged delegates up for grabs—could help propel her forward as the field continues to narrow. (For more on how the delegates are distributed, here’s a helpful explainer.)

“Warren speaks to some of our key demographics as a Democratic primary state. Our swing voter is a suburban, educated, white woman, and I think those women have really responded to women candidates in the last four years,” Rosenoer says. “Warren has also been endorsed by key African American and Latino communities and organizations. And we know the primary-based vote is really dependent on the younger people of color in the state, so I think she has a fighting chance.” 

Chapin believes Colorado’s mail-in primary voting system (every registered voter who will be 18 or older by the general election in November, including unaffiliated voters, received a ballot by mail in mid-February) will likely be a boon for Warren, who had two impressive back-to-back debate performances in Nevada and South Carolina, while many Colorado voters had their ballots in their hands. “I think politically, [Warren] and Bernie align with the primary electorate here,” Chapin says. “It doesn’t surprise me that the two of them are doing the best, at least among the rank and file.” 

The moderates are splitting the vote—and can’t seem to gain their footing

Even before Buttigieg and Klobuchar called it quits, the moderate candidates couldn’t seem to get a foothold here among the Democratic primary voters. What gives? “We’ve seen the base of the Democratic party, those core primary voters, move further left over the last few years,” says Rosenoel. “From conversations we’ve had at the state level—such as in criminal justice reform, regulating oil and gas drilling, and funding teachers and public education—there is a larger divide between the left flank of primary voters and more moderate Democrats who maybe won’t vote in the primary but will definitely vote in the general.” 

Still, Michael Fields, executive director of Colorado Rising Action, says that there are a lot of moderate voters in the state who are concerned about the possibility of a Sanders candidacy. The problem is that the moderate vote is splitting among multiple candidates—Bloomberg and Biden especially, but also Buttigieg and Klobuchar, even if they’re no longer in the race, due to early voting. 

“You’re going to see a non-Bernie vote that’s pretty big but it’s going to be split between other people,” Fields says. “I think some of those other candidates match up better with the Democratic party on issues like charter schools and totally banning fracking, which isn’t enormously popular here. There are a lot of more moderate Democrats who are afraid that a Bernie nomination might make it easier for Trump to win [in the general].” 

For someone like Bloomberg, who Fields says has invested about $7 million in Colorado, has offices throughout the state, and a vast team on the ground, not performing well here will cost him. “The investment is significant,” says Flaherty. “But I think it’s difficult. The antagonism toward billionaires and that message runs so deep in the [Democratic] party, I don’t think they’ll ever embrace him.”

Biden, on the other hand, didn’t even hold a public event in Colorado—perhaps proving that the state was never going to swing his way given the Democratic primary electorate. “Joe Biden is nowhere near as inspiring as Bernie Sanders is to younger voters,” says Flaherty. “[He] was supposed to be the savior, the moderate who was going to get it done despite his age. But Biden never talks about the future. It’s been a complete lack of looking forward.”

How will unaffiliated voters shape the contest?

This is the first time that Colorado’s unaffiliated voters—who outnumber both registered Democrats and Republicans and make up 40 percent of registered voters—are allowed to vote in the primary. 

So far, according to Magellan Strategies, unaffiliated voters are taking advantage of their inclusion in the primary. As of Tuesday morning, 31.4 percent of the 1,302,865 ballots returned were from independent voters (34.5 percent came from Democrats and 34.2 from Republicans). Of those ballots returned, unaffiliated voters selected a Democratic ballot by more than two-to-one, which isn’t surprising given that the Republican primary is basically uncontested. 

So what do we know about these voters? Flaherty says in this political environment, they tend to lean more liberal, and the Democratic Party has done a better job appealing to unaffiliated voters since 2016 by focusing on issues such as healthcare, transportation, affordable housing, and teacher pay. 

Fields says Colorado’s unaffiliated voters tend to be more moderate, and swing back and forth depending on who (and what) is on the ballot. “When it comes down to it, unaffiliated voters care about healthcare costs, roads, they tend to be more fiscally conservative,” he says. “These are issues Republicans should be talking about regardless of who [the Democratic candidate is].” 

But there’s one thing that we know for sure about independents—a whopping 50 percent of voters under 44 are not affiliated with a political party. “They’re unaffiliated because both parties are unappealing to them,” Flaherty says. “They still care and are paying more attention than they ever have, but they’re torn.” 

Looking ahead to the general election

The Colorado primary race (and a potential Bernie Sanders nomination) has inspired speculation over how the state’s voters will react come November. Colorado has gone blue in the last three presidential elections—voters chose President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats now make up 29 percent of registered voters, while Republicans make up 28 percent. In today’s highly polarized environment, it’s our state’s large growing number of independents who will make the difference, and we already know that they lean more liberal. 

But not all the experts we spoke with see a definite path for the Democratic presidential nominee in Colorado no matter what. “If it ends up being Bernie, I think it’s going to create an interesting dynamic between democratic socialism vs. how well the economy has been going here in Colorado and across the country,” Fields says.

Whoever ends up at the top of the ticket is also likely to impact Colorado’s U.S. Senate race, where Republican Sen. Cory Gardner—who has already endorsed Donald Trump’s reelection—is defending his seat in what has been dubbed as one of the nation’s key races to watch

“The presidential race has dramatic implications on the Senate race,” says Flaherty, especially if the Democrats’ nominee ends up being former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is widely considered the front-runner and staked his own failed presidential run on being a pragmatic moderate. 

“If it ends up being Bernie at the top of the ticket, how closely does [Hickenlooper] hug Bernie’s policies or how much does he distance himself from them?” says Fields. “When he was running for president, he said Bernie’s policies would FedEx the nomination to Trump. It will be interesting to see.” 

Still, other experts we spoke with, like Chapin, point out that the state’s demographics still favor Democrats—and that’s not likely to change. “I think the state will go for a Democratic [presidential] nominee, whoever that is,” she says. “It happened last time. Bernie won the primary and Hillary won the general. I don’t see any reason why it would be any different in 2020. If anything the state has gotten bluer since then.”  

Editor’s note, 3/3/20: This article has been updated with new information released on Super Tuesday. 

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