Recall Election Post-Mortem: Ballots, Bitterness, and Bloviation

morsegiron

An unexpectedly brutal recall special election night for Democrats has left observers scrambling to recalculate the Colorado political landscape. With a headline-grabbing victory in hand, beleaguered Colorado Republicans are (understandably) looking to capitalize with an eye toward an electoral turnaround in 2014. Beneath the headlines, there are some underlying factors responsible for last night's success that are indeed warning signs for Democrats going forward–but, as we'll explain, also teachable moments. And Republicans should not feel overly buoyant about last night's results, as much of what happened can't be replicated. Here's our initial read of some key factors: 

Balloting problems can fully account for Sen. John Morse's margin of defeat. Litigation from a third-party candidate, who in the end failed to garner the needed signatures to join the race, prevented the normal delivery of mail ballots in this election. The situation was further compounded by limited voting hours and locations set up by El Paso County Clerk Wayne Williams. Early voting locations in SD-11 opened days after those in Pueblo, and some as centers, such as liberal Manitou Springs, didn't open until Monday.

The preliminary tally as of this morning has Morse trailing by a mere 343 votes to Senator-elect Bernie Herpin. But more telling is the stark difference in the total number of votes cast in the SD-11 recall election versus SD-3 in Pueblo: Over 35,000 in Pueblo compared to fewer than 18,000 in Colorado Springs. At least some of that gap must be attributed to impaired access to the vote in El Paso County.

Pueblo Democrats have a lot to answer for today. The unique characteristics of the blue-collar Democratic stronghold of Pueblo caused some concern, as we touched on a few times about how Democratic infighting could result in trouble for Senator Angela Giron. That said, the modeling by Democrats did not forecast the crushing loss she suffered last night, and field strategists on the ground did not detect the Democratic votes against Giron that contributed to her defeat yesterday. 

The transpartisan pull of the gun issue is almost certainly a factor, but there's more to this story that involves personal conflicts between Giron and other Pueblo Democrats. We're not making any judgments about who may be right or wrong in such infighting. The problem for Giron's detractors today is that nobody outside Pueblo gives a crap about their petty squabbles–we simply want to know why this Democratic stronghold could not defend their state senator. We wouldn't want to be the ones trying to explain today why they as Democrats sat this out, or worse.

Democrats fought the message war in these recalls with one hand tied behind their backs. There was a strategic decision made early on by Democrats and third party recall opponents to avoid the subject of guns as much as possible during the defense of Morse and Giron. This was not a decision made lightly, after polling clearly showed how much the issue agitated conservatives while contributing relatively little to motivating the Democratic base. But what Democrats rejected, or at least didn't account for for in this strategy is one inexorable fact: the recall elections were always about guns, and no amount of denial could change that.

As a result, Democratic messaging tended to dance uncomfortably around what everyone following the recalls knew was the central issue. News reports repeatedly zeroed in on the fact that the issue was not being mentioned in pro-Democratic ads. Part of this was skittishness left over from the long and vicious debate over the gun safety bills passed in the Colorado legislature this year. Democratic attempts to strengthen their message on guns during the session frequently met with gaffe-riddled disaster. The media's coverage of the issue has ranged from incompetent to openly hostile. And of course, there was a long list of positive accomplishments unrelated to guns, and attacks on opponents, that it was hoped would motivate the Democratic base to get out and vote.

But in the end, avoidance of the unavoidably central issue confronting Senators Morse and Giron contributed to their defeat. One of the best indicators of Democratic messaging failure on the issue of guns is recent polling that shows Colorado voters dislike the amorphous concept of "gun control," but support the bills actually passed by the legislature this year. That disconnect, exploited and widened by pro-gun misinformation, is a major reason Giron and Morse were recalled yesterday.

These recalls are likely the high water mark of the latest Colorado Republican "comeback." The ability to pour disproportionate resources into two state senate districts to win recall special elections does not automatically portend general election success for Republicans in the future. For one thing, it was already the case before these recalls that Democrats felt they had accomplished their objectives with regard to gun safety. Especially now, it's a safe bet there will be no push next January for more gun legislation. The single-issue anger over these new laws will subside now that the gun lobby has extracted their pound of flesh, and the issue won't be salient in November of 2014 the way it is today.

The recalls also continue a trend of hard-right candidates being not just elected, but placed in highly visible roles by the Colorado GOP. What we hear about Senators-elect Bernie Herpin and George Rivera suggests their time in office will be quite memorable, adding even more color to a Senate caucus already blessed by the likes of Sens. Vicki Marble and Ted Harvey. Again, polling shows that statewide, the view of these recalls is very different than the voting results in these two districts. If Republicans interpret these results as an excuse to delay getting their public embarrassments under control–or worse, create new ones–they'll be worse off in the long run.

No Democrat should be under any delusions about what happened yesterday. It was a victory by the gun lobby and longsuffering Colorado Republicans, but it was also a defeat for Democrats worsened by avoidable aggravating circumstances–only partly cushioned by the fact that two of the four recalls ended in defeat before they began. The messaging failure we discussed above was perhaps inevitable as soon as Democrats lost control of the narrative around gun safety during the legislative session. In all the years we've been involved in politics, we've never seen an issue successfully managed by avoidance–but we do see it unsuccessfully tried an awful lot.

We'll have much more to say about the lessons of this historic–for good or ill–election in the coming days.

35 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. ParkHill says:

    PPP polling showed Giron & Morse heading to defeat, but Tom Jensen failed to publish it:

    "We did a poll last weekend in Colorado Senate District 3 and found that voters intended to recall Angela Giron by a 12 point margin, 54/42," Jensen wrote in the post. "In a district that Barack Obama won by almost 20 points I figured there was no way that could be right and made a rare decision not to release the poll. It turns out we should have had more faith in our numbers [because] she was indeed recalled by 12 points."

    The poll, Jensen continued, also found that the gun measures that sparked the recall elections of Giron and Colorado Senate President John Morse (D), were not actually that unpopular. Morse and Giron helped narrowly pass the new gun restrictions.

    "Expanded background checks for gun buyers had 68/27 support among voters in the district, reflecting the overwhelming popularity for that we've found across the country," Jensen continued. "And voters were evenly divided on the law limiting high capacity ammunition magazines to 15 bullets, with 47 percent supporting and 47 percent opposing it. If voters were really making their recall votes based on those two laws, that doesn't point to recalling Giron by a 12 point margin."

    "We did find on the poll though that voters in the district had a favorable opinion of the NRA by a 53/33 margin," Jensen wrote. "And I think when you see the final results what that indicates is they just did a good job of turning the election more broadly into do you support gun rights or are you opposed to them. If voters made their decision based on the actual pretty unobtrusive laws that Giron helped get passed, she likely would have survived."

    The lesson for me is the following: Recalls were held in an off election which favored passionate single-issue voters over low info voters.

  2. Early WormEarly Worm says:

    What about recall elections in the future?  There is certainly a possiblity that the State Senate will be a one vote majority, on way of the other, after the next election.  Given the success of these recalls, why wouldn't the minority party cherry pick a few districts for a "do over" recall? Will the majority need to petition for recall on a few minority districts in order to defend itself? Costs are an issue, but when has there been a shortage of money in politics?  Are we facing a future of continuous (recall) elections?

    • That's a good question. The NRA could focus on a couple of races at a time and keep doing this over and over…

      Given that possibility, I would recommend that Gov. Hickenlooper call a special session to resolve the mail-in ballot vs. recall candidate deadline issue.

      • OrangeFreeOrangeFree says:

        Guaranteed these folks are doing polling as we speak in "swing" districts currently held by Dems. If they find even one potential, expect another recall campaign soon to try and change control of the State Senate, and maybe even a couple to make the House more within reach next year. 

  3. n3bn3b says:

    It seemed like you were going to take responsibility. But nope! Ballots and sexist fellow Dems screwed you.

    Remember, if you don't learn from history, like the history made last night, you're doomed to repeat it. Beginning in 2014…

  4. ElliotFladenElliotFladen says:

    I think this is some thought provoking analysis on your end in the OP that cannot be easily dismissed on first read.  A well written post

  5. I'll take each of these separately, for n3b's sake and for mine…

    The Morse Loss:

    First, let me echo what Sen. Morse said himself (and probably didn't say enough): his loss in this election was worth the price of getting reasonable and moderate gun legislation passed this year.

    Morse probably would have won with mail-in ballots available; he might have won if the early voting center in Manitou Springs had been opened as long as some of the others. These "probably"s and "might have"s are a simple matter of interest: the people who were voting were those motivated by the recall; the people who didn't vote are the general election voters who couldn't be bothered to participate in an out-of-season election in person. This is a recurring theme for Democrats – they don't tend to get their voters out to the polls well during special elections.

    Morse won't be back in the 2014 election – he's term limited anyway. But don't take comfort in that; his last general election results showed him underperforming the Democratic tilt to the district. Herpin will be in for a tough fight next year.

    • The Giron Loss:

      I agree that Pueblo (and statewide) Democrats have to do some serious soul-searching here. How did Giron's campaign fail? Was it a candidate rivalry thing? Was it a messaging thing? Was it a GOTV thing? Or were the voters really well-informed and didn't like the gun laws that actually passed? 12 points is not a small margin.

      The PPP poll results suggest that it wasn't about the gun laws that actually passed – even the magazine limit didn't have a net opposition. Which means it might have been what people believed happened, or what they were afraid would happen, or… it might not have been the message at all.

      Even more than Morse's district, it seems doubtful that the GOP will hold this seat after 2014. The district is a pretty partisan Dem stronghold, and over the next year plus I'm guessing most of those Dems that voted against Giron will come back…

      • PS – I think statewide Dems owe it to the party to figure this out, share, and learn.

      • Messaging:

        This was the first recall of state level politicians under the current state constitution, I believe. I said early on that some of the messaging should challenge the basic use of the recall as punishment for legislative issues, and I stand by that. In fact, I'll double down: the failure to define the recall as a tool to be used against corrupt politicians and not for each and every political vendetta will probably have repercussions down the road, including quite possibly more NRA sponsored recalls in the upcoming months.

        The failure to simply and clearly define and defend the gun legislation will also echo through the next year or so. Democrats in this state need to be on top of that – they need to spend money to counter the lies and misunderstandings that are prevalent, and they need to show that they're willing to stand up for it. Nothing inspires uncertainty more than a wimpy response. The radical right is good at appearing strong even when the ground underneath them is rotten; Democrats have more solid ground to stand on for so many issues – they shouldn't be afraid to take that stand.

        Finally – and dwyer will probably stand by me here – Democrats still haven't mastered the art of campaign sloganeering a la Frank Lutz. Keep it simple, keep it catchy; keep it accurate and you'll be one up on the GOP.

        • Hawkeye-X says:

          The recall provision will be fixed in the special session so the NRA assholes can't whine about that one issue for a recall.

           

          The recall, in my view, was illegal in the beginning and should have not been performed. And it should have been in the general election ballot, not 60 days after the petiiton was deemed valid (which it still isn't in my eyes) – and that judge is perfectly ripe for a recall, he made several serious judicial errors that should have been appealed and overturned. That judge is in for a fight of his career.

           

           

          • Illegal due to the petition wording, or just illegal 'cause? While I feel the recall procedure was abused for a purpose I do not feel it should be used for, I cannot in all conscience argue that it was illegally used, except that the petition language was incorrect.

      • nota33 says:

        There was an article a few weeks ago talking about what you are talking about. The article basically said if George wins Angela seat, it will be hard for him to keep it in 2014. Those democrats who voted against Giron and voted to replace her with a radical republican nutjob like Rivera are not true and genuine democrats. There are many reasons why these recalls did not fail. I blame it on mail ballots, it being a special election, and low turnout from democrats. Only 19,000 democrats voted in the Giron recall effort when there are 39,000 democrats in Giron's district. In Morse's district, several thousand democrats did not vote in his recall. Turnout and not having mail ballots are the reason we lost. These two recalls were winnable for us.

      • nota33 says:

        Giron and Morse did what was right. They are heroes and they have a lot more integrity than the gun loving extremists could ever have.

  6. notaskinnycooknotaskinnycook says:

    I'm having trouble with why early and mail-in voting made such a difference. Sure, there are people who are out of town, ill, or mobility-impaired and would have difficulty voting in person on election day. But how many people who would have voted by mail were just flat-out too lazy to drag themselves to the polling place and cast a vote in SD 3 or 11? If people have reached the point where they need to be spoon-fed to exercize their right to vote, we are all in deep trouble!

  7. Tom says:

    There are a number of reasons that the lack of mail-in ballots and early voting may have lowered turnout:

    People are accustomed to receiving a permanent mail-in ballot and structure their voting behavior around leisurely examining their ballot at home.

    The relative short notice and unusual time of year made it more difficult for people to schedule time to go to the polls, especially with shortened early voting.

    Mobility really is a deal-breaker for a number of people, especially poorer folks, students, and the elderly who have to figure out rides in order to make it to the polls- groups that tend to vote more Democratic btw.

    Finally, receiving a ballot in the mail with clearly delineated instructions for returning it really does increase turnout as it reduces confusion about the (perhaps conflicting) messages about where and when to vote.

  8. Tom says:

    My theory is that Republicans were motivated to send a message and that was enough to rile them into a tribal frenzy. Democrats considered the implications of the recalls on the partisan makeup of the legislature and didn't see any direct impact on actual policy so didn't really care that much.

    Unless you're BFFs with Morse or Giron, really invested in party politics, or especially passionate about gun control, as a Democratic-leaning voter there wasn't a lot going on in the recalls to pop your cork.

  9. nota33 says:

    We are on the right side of history. People need to be brave and stand up to these NRA cowards. What Morse did and Giron took a lot of political courage.You can bet your bottom dollar these wingnuts will abuse the recall process more and more when a democrats votes the way they don't like. We must defeat these right wing radical extremists. They are the minority and we are the majority.

    • ElliotFladenElliotFladen says:

      Quite self-serving to state those who agree with you are brave while those who disagree are cowards. 

      • Miss Jane says:

        Giron's and Morse's actions did take political courage.  Their opponents may be more bullies than cowards.  The tombstone here today and the red guy shooting the blue guy icon of a poster on this thread, plus the assertion of Caldera's about striking fear are all quite clear. This dance is just getting started.  I'm going to need more popcorn, and maybe some scotch.

         If you are supposed to dance with those who brought you, I am not in the group who wants to make it easy for bad guys to get guns and kill a lot of people. Rights come with responsibilities.  I am related to people who carry often, they don't seem to mind showing they are responsible.  I feel safer with that.  

         

         

      • MADCO says:

        Background checks? Really?

        Only the brave oppose background checks? ok- got it.

  10. nota33 says:

    They (Morse and Giron) are brave because they did the right thing and something that cost them theit jobs. They did the right thing and the gun whackos and the NRA did not like that. Morse and Giron are heroes in my book while the NRA and the wingnuts are cowards.

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