What Colorado’s Recall Results Mean for Dems

   < < Go Back
from Real Clear Politics,

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

More From Real Clear Politics: