Amidst the news of too-close-to-call races, vote recounts and the “blue wave”, it was easy to miss perhaps the most important long-term story of Colorado’s 2018 midterm elections: the rise of independent voters.
Voters who don’t affiliate with either of the major parties – independents – cast the deciding votes in the Nov. 6 election.
Republican and Democratic voters can generally be counted on to cast a vote for their party’s candidates, so much so that the minor variations in party turnout are scrutinized every political cycle. In 2018, the enthusiasm of Democratic voters had an impact on our elections, but the much-discussed enthusiasm gap only resulted in Democratic voters casting 33 percent of the total vote to the Republicans’ 32 percent.
The more enduring story is the massive uptick in involvement by our state’s independents, casting a full 34 percent of the total votes. For the first time in Colorado history, independent voters cast more ballots than either Republicans or Democrats. Independents are now the fulcrum upon which Colorado politics tilt to the left, right or center.
In 2018, independents in Colorado tilted decidedly against the President’s party. This should have come as no surprise, as independents’ displeasure was well known long before Election Day.
Last summer a poll conducted by Let Colorado Vote found President Trump’s approval rating among unaffiliated voters at a dismal 29 percent. In the historic open primary election that followed, 62 percent of independents participated in the Democratic primary and only 38 percent in the Republican primary, foreshadowing the lopsided midterm results this November.
While Donald Trump was undoubtedly a major drag on Republican candidates, the party should reflect on its efforts to speak to independent voters on the issues they care about most.
In the Let Colorado Vote poll, independent voters listed health care and education as their top two concerns.
There are powerful conservative solutions to the challenges in health care and education but Republican candidates seemed to spend little time talking about their ideas on those issues.
Democrats should not take independents’ support for granted. Independents do not define themselves as strictly aligned with one party. In fact, 52 percent view themselves as “political moderates.” Accordingly, Coloradans rejected multiple statewide tax increases and an anti-oil and gas measure. Election night had strong messages for those on both ends of the political spectrum.
The willingness of Independent voters to support candidates and policies from any party which advances thoughtful ideas on their priorities makes independents key to winning elections in our state.
Thanks to a combination of voter-approved reforms in the last two elections – Proposition 107 and 108 in 2016, which reinstated the presidential primary and opened all primaries to independents and this year’s triumphant passage of Amendments Y and Z that guaranteed independent voter participation on redistricting commissions – independents are not only pivotal in general elections, but throughout the entire political process.
Reforms which empower independents are also good for political parties. Open primaries and fair districts allow parties to retain a stronger and broader engagement for their efforts, rather than being held captive by the extremes of their parties.
These newly-empowered independents are joined by voters from all parties who want pragmatic governing to be more prominent than partisan posturing. A recent study identified an “Exhausted Majority” comprised of 67 percent of our nation’s voters who “support finding political compromise” and are “fatigued by US politics today.”
This new electoral landscape will allow office holders to govern with smart policy and principled compromise which prioritizes the needs of Coloradans over political games. A coalition built from this common-sense majority will win elections.
Every election has its stories of triumph and defeat, most of which are forgotten shortly after the election night balloons have fallen, but the enduring story from Colorado’s 2018 general election will be the power of independent voters. It wasn’t a blue or red wave which decided the 2018 election outcome, it was an independent wave.
This wave hasn’t crested.
This year the percentage of registered independent voters has grown in every county in Colorado. They are gaining in power and that is a good thing for those in our state and in our country hungry for pragmatism over partisanship.
Kent Thiry is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, DaVita Inc., and Chief Executive Officer, DaVita Medical Group.