Summit County voter registration down, but Democrats coming out on top
October 21, 2016
The Democratic Party has added 613 voters to the rolls so far this year in Summit County, compared with 186 Republicans and 541 Independents, according to the latest data from the Colorado Secretary of State. All told, and including minor parties, the county has 1,440 new registrants, bringing the total number of active voters to 18,976.
Republicans have been steadily losing ground statewide to Democrats, who have been adding voters at nearly double the rate of the GOP. In October, the number of registered Democrats among active voters narrowly surpassed the GOP's tally for the first time in years — 998,845 Democrats compared to 992,944 Republicans.
Overall, however, registration has been sluggish compared to 2012, despite saturation coverage of the Clinton-Trump showdown: Summit added nearly three times as many voters over the same period in 2012. It's the same story across the state, where the rolls have been growing slower than in the run-up to the previous two presidential elections.
Earlier this week, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that the share of registered voters who are "highly interested" in the election was down 4 points from 2012 at 72 percent and 15 lower than 2008, perhaps suggesting that the caustic tone of the race — or the dismal approval ratings of both presidential candidates — has turned some voters off.
The trend is particularly pronounced among young people and African-Americans, a potential headwind for a Clinton camp that will need strong turnout in those Democratic-leaning demographics to replicate Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012. The largest dip, according to the poll, was among African-Americans, a constituency Clinton relied on heavily in her primary defeat of Bernie Sanders.
Analysts have debated whether the unprecedentedly abysmal approval ratings of both candidates will depress turnout, or if extreme antipathy towards the candidates will drive voters to the polling booths to prevent a victory for the other candidate.
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"That's the Rubik's Cube we're trying to figure out now," said David Flaherty, a pollster for Republican-leaning Magellan Strategies.
"Overall, registration has been lower than perhaps what you'd expect from previous years," he said. "But Democrats have been getting the job done statewide."
Inactive voters — those who are registered but won't get mail-in ballots because the state doesn't have their current address — are a potential wild card, comprising about 16 percent of the electorate. This group is younger and more independent, with 43 percent aged 18 to 34 and 46 percent unaffiliated. In Summit County, 7,408 voters were listed inactive as of Oct. 3.
Clinton's advantage with young people is well known, but how she fares with unaffiliated voters is less clear. A recent poll by Magellan, however, may offer a clue: in a September survey of 500 likely Colorado voters, Clinton edged out Trump among unaffiliated voters 38 percent to 24 percent. Overall, Clinton bested Trump 41 percent to 36, with Libertarian Gary Johnson picking up 13 and Green Party nominee Jill Stein netting 3 percent.
Inactive voters, however, are stingy with their votes; in 2014, only 7 percent cast ballots, an extremely low number even for a non-presidential year.
"Democrats have been really good about targeting these inactive voters," said Flaherty. "They've found them and flipped nine to ten thousand of them. But overall it's unlikely those folks are going to vote — maybe nine percent."
But if the statewide independent lean toward Clinton holds true here, it could push Summit into the Democratic column due to the county's outsize share of active unaffiliated voters: 8,253 compared to 5,935 Democrats and 4,393 Republicans.
The impact on down-ballot candidates is also uncertain. Clinton has recovered from a wobbly August and September, when she was dogged by her email scandal and a leaked video of her describing Trump supporters as "deplorables," but she was able to rebound with respectable debate performances and another leaked video: the now-infamous tape of Trump bragging about groping women.
For Flaherty, who speaks in terms of pre- and post-tape, that was a defining moment for down-ballot candidates, who before had an easier time distancing themselves from their divisive and unpredictable nominee.
"Before the tape, people were separating candidates from Trump, people were really evaluating them differently," Flaherty said. "But since the tape, Democrats have been very smart about pounding houses with robo-calls saying, 'It's a real shame that so-and-so didn't repudiate Trump.'"
Despite the explosive backlash against the tapes, which saw the country's most powerful Republican, House Speaker Paul Ryan, effectively concede the election to Clinton, Republican candidates still face a fraught strategic calculus: Polls show that 59 percent of Trump supporters wouldn't vote for any Republican candidate that wasn't backing their man.
"That's what will be really interesting to see," said Flaherty. "Will that backlash tsunami swallow up otherwise strong incumbents?"