The two biggest races in Colorado this year are those for governor and congress in the 7th congressional district, the latter of which is widely considered to be one of the most important congressional races in the entire country in 2006. But recent polls have shown that neither race looks to be much of a contest. Democrat Bill Ritter is leading Republican Bob Beauprez in the race for governor by 16 or 17 points, and a poll released yesterday in CD7 shows that Democrat Ed Perlmutter leads Republican Rick O’Donnell by 17 points.

Critics of early polls like to say that these races are going to be much closer than polls indicate by the time the votes are counted, and they are right. But polls like these are still devastating to the candidates who trail, as well as for the political parties they represent, for two reasons: Money and voter turnout.

Most of the money in a political campaign arrives in the last two months before the election because big donors (including big-money funds operated by each political party) wait to see how the race looks before they break out their checkbooks. Most big donations don’t come because the donor thinks the candidate is great – they come because the donor thinks the candidate can win. Think about it: If you had $1,000 to give to a candidate of your choice and you couldn’t decide who to spend it on, the deciding factor would probably be whether or not your money would have an impact. Giving your money to a candidate who is hopelessly trailing in a race might make you feel better, but you know it’s probably a wasted donation. Many big donors write checks so they can have influence later, and you don’t gain influence by backing a candidate who doesn’t win.

This is one of the problems that Beauprez and O’Donnell now face — convincing donors that it isn’t a waste of their money to write out a big check to their campaign. When you are trailing in the polls by 17 points, donors will start to look elsewhere for candidates who appear to have a better chance of winning. Beauprez and O’Donnell can tell donors that it’s going to be a close race once the votes are counted, but that won’t erase the fear that they aren’t going to win. Who cares if it is a close race? Donors want to back a winner.

The other problem that starts to manifest when high-profile candidates are trailing so badly in the polls involves voter turnout. When the average Republican voter in the 7th congressional district sees that the top two candidates on the ballot are trailing badly, they start to think that their vote isn’t particularly valuable. Most people go to the polls to vote for the highest-profile candidates on the ballot, and if they don’t think their vote will matter in those races, they probably aren’t going to bother voting. This effect starts to snowball, and then it swallows up all of the other Republican candidates down the ballot. If people don’t vote because they think Beauprez and O’Donnell are lost causes, then they also aren’t going to be voting for Republican candidates for the state house and senate whose candidacies are not a lost cause. There are four or five very tough legislative races within the 7th district this year, and all of them could end up swinging in favor of Democrats if Beauprez and O’Donnell can’t turn around the perception that their campaigns are doomed.

When Beauprez and O’Donnell supporters say that the 17-point deficits their candidates face, respectively, are not indicative of the fact that the outcome of these races will be much closer, they are absolutely correct. But that doesn’t change the fact that the damage is already being done, because in politics, perception is everything. Everyone likes a winner, and you’ve got to look like a winner in order to actually end up as one.