Larimer County has become Colorado’s premier swing county, with both parties strongly contesting it. Republicans do better at the local countywide level, they control all three commissioners and all of the county offices, but Democrats – like Ken Salazar, Bill Ritter, Barack Obama and even Michael Bennet against neighboring Weld County DA – have been winning there in statewide races.
A recent Ciruli Associates poll shows why. The county is in near partisan balance, with only a slight tilt to center right.
Big Difference in Registration and Partisan Self-Identification
Although formal party registration in the County Clerk’s Office shows Republicans with 40 percent of registered voters, Democrats with 35 percent and the balance unaffiliated (see first column on table below), in fact, when voters are asked their partisan affiliation, 27 percent volunteer Republican, 26 percent Democrat and 42 percent independent (see top row of table below).
Nearly two-fifths of Larimer County voters (39%) do not claim to identify with the party they are registered with. Both Democrats and Republicans lose partisans and self-styled independents win.
Republican and Democratic officeholders must compete for more than two-fifths (42%) of the electorate that considers itself independent of the parties regardless of their historic registration. Also, as the table shows, only two-thirds of registered partisans identify with their respective parties (65% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats). Twenty-eight percent of Republican registrants label themselves “independent” as do 29 percent of Democrats. These near equal percentages of the two parties do not see themselves as partisans and must be motivated by other factors, such as personality, track record of candidate and the issues.
Partisan Balance, Polarized Voters and Diversity in the Center
When Larimer County voters are asked their partisan leanings, they distribute themselves on a range from “strong Democrat” (21%) to “strong Republican” (21%), with similar passion at both ends of the spectrum.
The center of the electorate is diverse and populated with weaker partisans of both parties and true independents (or at least voters who hate partisan labels). The weak partisan leaners in the 42 percent that claim to be independent are also closely balanced between Democrats (13%) and Republicans (11%) (see table below).
Of course, candidates in both parties have the dual challenge of appealing to a balanced and moderate center of the electorate, while both parties are dominated by their most intensely partisan members in primaries and especially during the nomination process.
More Conservative than Liberal, More Moderate Than Extreme
Although the county’s voters lean conservative, 43 percent to 31 percent when leaners are combined with middle-of-the-road voters, the less intensely ideological voter represents a super majority of 70 percent of the Larimer County vote (see table below).
Again, local candidates are challenged by a nominating system mostly controlled by strong partisans and more ideologically passionate voters. But, countywide voting is mostly in a moderate middle.
County vs. State Elections
Republicans have done better in recent years in countywide elections where personality and budget and management competence are the main issues. At the state level, where the issues are more controversial and polarized, Democrats have been winning a majority of county voters.