A Look at the Colorado Senate Race

As I discussed yesterday at the green place, of all the unexpected twists and turns of this year’s midterm election cycle, nothing has surprised and flummoxed me more as an analyst than the Senate race in Colorado between incumbent Democrat Mark Udall and Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner. Sen. Udall held a narrow but persistent lead in the polls all year until early September. Ever since, he has been trailing in virtually every poll, and the trend into October has been getting worse.

This has confused me for a couple of reasons. I can’t think of anything that Sen. Udall has done to arouse the anger of Coloradans. If he’s outspoken about anything, it’s government surveillance which I don’t think is something that would galvanize any opposition outside of the Intelligence Community. And when I look at issues within Colorado like new gun laws and marijuana legalization, I would think that they would hurt the governor who signed those laws more than a U.S. Senator who didn’t even vote on them. But Governor Hickenlooper is doing better than Senator Udall in every poll.

Given that Udall’s deficit in the aggregate of polls has grown to 3.8%, it appears that he will probably lose even if the polls this year are skewed towards the Republicans, which is probably the case.

Yet, Democrats are holding out hope, and perhaps with good reason. If there is any single factor that argues in Udall’s favor, it is a significant change in how Colorado conducts their elections. They have moved to a mail-in format, which means that most potential voters have received a ballot in the mail. This should help combat the typical drop off of Democratic votes in midterm election cycles considerably (studies differ on the likely impact of this change). Intuitively, it seems irrefutable that a mail-in option will allow a lot of busy workers to cast ballots who otherwise would not have had the free time on election day, and the increased ease of voting almost has to reduce apathy’s ability to cause disengagement. The more working class and disengaged people who vote, the better for Mark Udall.

Another potential boost for Udall is the difficulty that pollsters seem to have in contacting a healthy cross-section of the state’s Latino vote, and it may be that the polls have two problems in this regard. Their models may include too few Latinos and their pool of Latinos may skew too Republican. This may explain why pollsters have consistently underestimated Democratic support in recent elections. However, Harry Enten of 538.com says, “I don’t put much stock in any of these arguments.”

The best and most hopeful argument in Udall’s favor that I have heard is that he held his fire on his advertising campaign, allowing Gardner to dominate the airwaves in September in order to have an advantage down the stretch. Reports from Colorado are that Udall ads (from both the campaign and from outside groups) have saturated the markets in recent weeks and are currently ubiquitous. If progressive explanations for Udall’s deficit are accurate, that he hasn’t painted Gardner as the radical that he really is, that has changed now.

Does Udall’s inactivity on the air in September explain his fall in the polls, and can this late push similarly reverse the trend?

The final wildcard in this race is the Democrats’ ground game. Udall has an advantage in that the architect of the national ground game is the other senator from Colorado, Michael Bennet, who used the same principles to surprise pollsters four years ago and win another term. Back in February, Ed called Bennet’s Bannock Street Project “the best possible path to mitigating the damage of midterm “falloff.””

Here’s the problem. If the Bannock Street Project is working as anticipated, it should be at least partially evident in the current polls. We saw what happened to the Republicans in 2012 when they convinced themselves that all the polls were wrong.

In my opinion, the polls are probably skewed a little bit Republican across the board, which means that Democrats who are polling one or two points behind may actually be even or even slightly ahead. But that is not going to be enough to save a politician who is behind by 3.8% in the aggregate of polls. Maybe Udall’s late advertising campaign will begin to tighten the race, but it needs to close or I have no choice but the predict a Gardner victory.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.