Colorado has been one of the clear surprises this midterm. While the general outlines of the Senate battlefield have been set for two years, Colorado emerged as a competitive state early this year. After a harmonious accommodation between the party establishment and local tea party groups to agree on a nominee, the GOP candidate, Rep. Cory Gardner, has executed a good campaign that has steadily built strong support. The final question will be how the state adapts to a new voting system. This year, for the first time, the midterm election will be conducted entirely by mail-in ballot.
Just over a week ago, state election officials mailed a formal ballot to every voter registered in the state. Ballots have to be returned by mail or turned into polling stations by election day, November 4th. Voting is literally under way in the state right now. This makes handicapping the race more difficult.
Two polls released this week show Gardner as the clear favorite to win the seat. A poll from Quinnipiac shows Gardner leading Sen. Mark Udall by 6 points, 47-41. Udall leads among women by 9 points, but Gardner holds a staggering 19 point edge among men. Independents prefer Gardner by 3 points.
A new poll from CNN, released the same day as Quinnipiac, shows Gardner with a smaller, 4 point lead, but also hitting the 50% level of support. He leads Udall 50-46 among likely voters. The gender gap is similar as the Quinnipiac poll, with Udall leading women by 8 points and Gardner leading men by 20. In both polls, Udall’s favorability ratings are underwater, while Gardner’s is viewed more favorably by voters.
Taken together, the two polls show Gardner with a solid lead heading into the final weeks of the campaign. By traditional analysis, this race would be considered a “lean GOP” state at this time. It is very difficult for an incumbent to reclaim the lead at this late stage in a campaign, especially when his opponent is at or very near the 50% majority threshold.
Udall’s challenge is even more difficult due to the drag from Obama’s declining poll numbers. Just 39% of Colorado voters approve of Obama’s job performance, slightly worse than his national ratings. With the Ebola crisis, and the governments mishandling of it, dominating the headlines, it is unlikely Obama’s approval ratings will dramatically improve enough over the next 19 days to help Udall.
The new all-mail system of voting, though, may be Udall’s lifeline.
It is difficult to forecast how the new voting method will effect the outcome. Because it hasn’t been done before statewide, there is no history of how quickly ballots are returned, when the bulk of voting takes place or how many people will simply return their ballot at a polling place on November 4th, mimicking traditional voting. We don’t yet know how many ballots could already be in the mail, making any new campaign news or developments irrelevant.
We also don’t know how the new mail-in voting system will impact turnout or the composition of the electorate. Historically, midterm election turnout favors Republicans, because those voters most sympathetic to Democrats are less likely to vote. That isn’t necessarily true in the new system, when a voter has a more than 4 week window in which to cast a ballot. It may be less difficult to entice a voter to cast a ballot, from their home, at some point over a long period, than it is to get them to show up at the polls on a particular day.
The system obviously provides a rich opportunity to engage in voter fraud. Most voting fraud in this country doesn’t occur at polling places on election day, but through the normal absentee and early voting process. This new process puts that opportunity on steroids, as it removes the hurdle of requesting early ballots. They are simply provided to every voter.
It also allows something very new; highly targeted, selective, voting turnout operations. Rather than organizing van rides or car pools on election day, campaign field staff have several weeks to visit individuals in their homes to urge them to cast a ballot at that moment.
One doesn’t have to have a strong conspiratorial bent to imagine organized mass collections of ballots to put into the mail or, even, to get lost on the way to the mailbox.
This midterm election could go down in history as the “yes, but” election. Like Colorado, virtually every state has some unknown variable that could impact the final results beyond the polling trends we can see. In Kansas, a wealthy liberal is running as an independent. In South Dakota, a liberal, former Republican is running as an independent while the Republican candidate has run a lackluster campaign. Louisiana and Georgia both have potential runoff elections. The list goes on.
So, yes, Colorado is showing every sign of a classic Republican shift among voters. But, there is a new all mail voting system. The race could even be already largely decided. Like most everything else this year, we just don’t know what is going to happen.