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What Colorado's Recall Results Mean for Dems

What Colorado's Recall Results Mean for Dems

By Sean Trende - September 11, 2013

When I first looked into the attempts to recall two Colorado state senators, I decided not to write about them. These were solidly Democratic districts, and it seemed unlikely that the disorganized effort would succeed.

But Tuesday night both recalls did succeed. John Morse, the president of the state Senate, lost by two percentage points, while Angela Giron lost by a surprising 12 points. Analysts on the right see this as an indicator of broader trouble brewing for the Democrats, while those on the left downplay the losses, laying them at the feet of decreased turnout. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: We have to wait and see. But let’s look at what was involved.

1. What happened?

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., Colorado passed a law requiring universal background checks and banning ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. It was similar to federal legislation that failed in Congress.

Gun-rights supporters were apoplectic, and vowed to recall four state legislators who supported the legislation. In the end, they managed to get the requisite number of signatures to recall two of them.

Both Morse and Giron represent heavily Democratic, relatively urban districts. According to calculations from DailyKos Elections, Barack Obama bested Mitt Romney by 58 percent to 39 percent in Giron’s district, which consists of the city of Pueblo and its suburbs (and a few rural areas). Morse’s district, which covers downtown Colorado Springs and some nearby towns, was even more Democratic, voting 59 percent to 38 percent for Obama. Further calculations by DailyKos Elections shows that these results weren’t outliers, but rather represent the typical Democratic performance in these districts.

In other words, Giron’s district is about a point more Democratic than Delaware, and Morse’s district is about a point more Republican than California (and therefore still highly Democratic). Despite pro-gun-control forces reportedly outspending the anti-gun-control forces by 6-to-1, both incumbents were defeated.

2. Why it might not matter.

Democrats’ reaction to this has been twofold. First, they note that mail-in voting was unavailable for the recall elections, which depressed turnout and arguably makes comparisons to the 2012 results difficult.

Second, and perhaps more strongly, Democrats argue that you can’t read too much into a pair of special elections, held in an odd-numbered year. These tend to be low-turnout affairs, with low-propensity voters (who are disproportionately Democratic) much less likely to turn out than they would in a normal midterm environment or in a presidential race.

3. Why it might matter.

There’s some truth to those points, especially the second one. As always, we should be exceedingly cautious when drawing conclusions of the basis of two data points. Citing but one example, we saw the GOP lose a special election in a pro-McCain southwestern Pennsylvania district in mid-2010, which many took as a sign that the GOP wasn’t ready to reclaim the House that fall. The Colorado elections have their own unique angles, and some reporting indicates that Giron’s and Morse’s attitudes toward the recalls might have had as much to do with the result as anything else.

At the same time, while the drop-off in Democratic performance in off-year elections is real, it is overstated. For example, Harry Enten estimates that from the presidential election of 2008 in Virginia to the gubernatorial election of 2009, decreased turnout cost the Democrats only four points. We might expect the drop-off to be even greater for special elections like the ones in Colorado, but it still seems a stretch that turnout shifts alone can explain the 14-point swing that Giron suffered. Something else plays a role. 

In fact, part of what occurred was that GOP turnout was unusually strong for an off-year special election. The “recall Morse” line received 9,000 votes, while the “recall Giron” effort drew 19,000 votes. (Mitt Romney received 26,000 votes in Giron’s district, and 19,000 in Morse’s.) In Giron’s district in particular, this was a surprisingly high turnout for an off-year special election.

For that matter, Morse’s GOP opponent received 13,500 votes in 2010, while Giron’s GOP opponent won 20,000 votes in that year. In other words, despite the intervening redistricting cycle, which helped Democrats somewhat, GOP turnout in this special election equaled midterm turnout in Giron’s district, and came close in Morse’s.

Two other important points are worth considering. First, even in the worst case, Democratic incumbents simply don’t lose in states like Delaware and California unless they have done something very, very wrong. They certainly don’t lose by 12 points. In fact, even in the great GOP midterm election of 2010, only a handful of Republicans won in districts where the president approached 60 percent of the vote (using his 2008 numbers, of course), and most of those were in Illinois, where Obama’s vote share had been somewhat enhanced by his “hometown hero” status. It’s just really difficult to write these results off completely, especially given that these were relatively high-profile special elections, driven by issues rather than personality.

Second, Democrats are far too blasé about their drop-off in voter participation in off-years and midterms. One can’t just look at a 14-point swing, chalk it up to an unenthusiastic base, and console oneself with the belief that a presidential year will look better (this assumes, of course, that a non-Obama Democrat can engender similar turnout). It’s not much of a Democratic majority if you’re going to give up your presidential-year gains in years that aren’t divisible by four.

The bottom line is that there is something of a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t aspect to the Democrats’ argument. If this isn’t about turnout, but rather is a reaction to policy, then relatively modest gun-control efforts look pretty radioactive, and an awful lot of Democrats who supported the federal gun-control bill ought to look over their shoulders. This is especially true in Colorado, where nine Democrats occupy seats that are more Republican than the ones Republicans just flipped.

But if these recalls really were mostly about turnout, they pose a different challenge for Democrats. Quite a few Democrats who won in 2012 did so by riding the back of increased minority turnout in the presidential year -- probably three in Arizona, three in California, one in Georgia, one in Nevada, one in North Carolina and one in Texas. If Democrats are currently experiencing double-digit drop-offs in net performance due to their base not turning out in non-presidential years, the conventional wisdom that there won’t be significant changes in the makeup of the House probably should be revisited.

Of course, we need to see what happens in a few other races before we make these sorts of sweeping generalizations.

4. Why it definitely matters.

I do think that there’s one area where these recalls really are important. After the failure of the Senate gun-control bill, it was fashionable to argue, a la the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky: “You cannot oppose the will of 90 percent of the public and expect no consequences.”

It appears that you can. For one thing, that 90 percent number represents something of a best case result drawn from a best-case question wording; actual public support for, say, universal background checks is somewhat lower (though clearly still a majority). Perhaps, as I explained in April, the energy is all on the side of the voters who oppose gun control. For example, while Americans might support universal background checks in the abstract, in practice they just don’t care that much about it. Those who oppose them, however, care a lot.

Gun-control proponents had argued that Newtown changed everything. The Colorado recalls are a fresh reminder of how weak an argument that truly is.

Additionally, Democratic pollster PPP found that while the individual components of the gun-control bill were relatively popular in Colorado (albeit by less than the national margin, and in a heavily Democratic district), voters had a positive opinion of the NRA.

This is consistent with my suggestion in April that relatively low information voters will tend to use "information shortcuts," and rather than diving into the details of gun-control legislation, will either assume that these laws do more than they actually are designed to do, or that they represent a step down a slippery slope. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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