By Eli Stokols
DENVER — For all the obsessive punditry about the drop-off in voter turnout during mid-term elections, consider that Colorado saw a major uptick in the number of young voters casting ballots in 2014 compared to 2010 — something Democrats spent millions of dollars to engineer that, ultimately, wasn’t enough to save Sen. Mark Udall’s job.
Perhaps that’s because the 70,000 voters between 18 and 36 casting ballots in 2014 after not voting in 2010 were cancelled out — and then some — by a six-figure increase in the number of new voters over the age of 65.
It’s also largely because younger voters aren’t as loyal to Democrats — or any political party — as many presume them to be.
“Largely they’re focused on issues, and not beholden to one party or another,” said Compass Colorado’s Kelly Maher during a Sunday morning conversation on FOX31 Denver’s #COpolitics: From The Source. “So we really have to do a good job of making the case that we’re better, but we have to do that based on issues.”
Stratgey 360’s Courtney Law agrees that younger voters are focused on issues and not party loyalty, but said the issues they care about — gay marriage, climate change, marijuana legalization — tend to skew progressive.
“The millennial generation is roughly a third of the electorate, but they tend to lead progressive,” Law said. “Social issues mean a lot for them.”
But in Colorado, gay marriage and recreational marijuana are now settled policy.
“The fact that those are becoming less of issues is actually the true legacy of those voters,” said Steve Fenberg, the executive director of New Era Colorado, a group that works to register new voters and signed up roughly 30,000 of them ahead of the 2014 midterms.
“The legacy of younger people participating in the process isn’t that it gets one party or the other elected, it’s that the issues they care about are more present.”
With gay marriage and marijuana now legal in Colorado, the onus is on Democrats to broaden the party’s message beyond those issues.
“As those issues become non-issues, millennials are facing the same issues as other Americans,” said Dustin Zvonek, the Colorado director of Americans For Prosperity. “They want good-paying jobs. They don’t want to live in their parents’ basements. And that’s why you’re seeing millennials more and more support conservative candidates.”
Zvonek points to exit polls from this month’s elections showing that just more than half of younger voters supported Democrats in 2014, a big drop off from 2012 when seven in 10 millennials cast ballots for President Obama.
“The vast majority of [newly registered young voters] are registering as unaffiliated,” Fenberg said. “They’re not loyal to either party, necessarily. Young people are going to crowd around a candidate who stands for something, not just attacking the other guy; that’s why they’re attracted to candidates like Barack Obama or Ron Paul.”
In Colorado’s competitive U.S. Senate race, Udall’s campaign focused most of its messaging on social issues, relentlessly attacking Republican Senator-elect Cory Gardner for his past votes and positions on abortion-related bills and personhood initiatives.
“It seems like there was an almost infantilization of these young people by only talking to them about certain issues,” Maher said.
While Democrats insist that that message moved voters and may be why Gardner’s margin of victory (2.1 percent) was nearly the smallest by any Republican candidate in the country, Gardner’s inroads with women, Hispanics and younger voters — key constituencies for Democratic candidates — helped him unseat an incumbent Colorado senator for the first time in 36 years.
“I think young people want to be spoken to in an authentic way,” Law said.