Colorado Election History 101 |

Colorado Election History 101

Burt Hubbard
Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colorado
Rocky Mountain NewsRoger Peabody, top, and Chad Colby watch President Reagan in 1986 at Denver's Stapleton airport.

Colorado entered statehood in 1876 as the ultimate swing state in one of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history.

It took 132 years, but this year Colorado has regained its battleground status in what is shaping up as another historic presidential election.

In the intervening years, presidential politics have exposed the state’s political quirks and trends.

Democrats have won the state just five times since 1920.

Boulder County, considered the state’s center of liberal thought, voted for Republican Ronald Reagan not once, but twice.

And only one time since 1920 have all 63 counties voted for the same presidential candidate – the nondescript Warren G. Harding.

Costilla County, not Denver or Boulder, is the traditional Democratic stronghold, while Elbert County has gone Republican more often than conservative bastion El Paso County.

In preparation for the upcoming showdown between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, the Rocky Mountain News took a look at the presidential elections in Colorado since statehood, including county-by-county results since 1920.

It shows a history of independence, bouts of unpredictability and a warning not to take Colorado voters for granted.

High stakes deal

The state made a big splash in presidential politics its first time out in 1876.

“It changed the course of history, you might say,” said state historian Bill Convery.

Republican Ulysses Grant was president and Republicans controlled Congress in 1876 when Colorado leaders approached them about statehood, Convery said. Everyone predicted a close presidential race between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden.

Thinking Colorado and its three electoral votes would go automatically to the Republicans, Congress approved statehood, historian Tom Noel said.

“The Republican Congress thought Colorado would nearly always be a Republican state,” Noel said.

Just to be sure, the Republican-controlled state legislature declared there was not enough time to hold a popular election for president so soon after statehood and awarded the three electoral votes to Hayes.

Hayes won the election by one electoral vote even though he was beaten in the popular vote by Tilden, 51 percent to 48 percent.

After three other states sent competing electoral delegations to Washington, the House of Representatives reached a compromise that gave the election to Hayes in return for an end to Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South.

“In Colorado’s first election, it swung the election to a Republican who won with a minority of the vote,” Noel said.

Over the next decades, Colorado almost always honored its Republican roots, voting only five times since 1920 for a Democratic candidate. And one of those rare Democratic winners – Bill Clinton in 1992 – triumphed only because Ross Perot pulled so many votes from Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush.

Before that, the most recent Democratic presidential winner in Colorado was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And before that, Coloradans had not gone Democratic in the presidential race since Harry Truman in 1948.

“There is in our DNA a strong Republican strain,” Convery said.

Residents didn’t like the federal government dictating policy on mining and grazing and generally had no love for unions. Both played to the Republicans’ strong suits, he said.

Today’s red-blue split between the Democratic Boulder and Denver counties and the Republican El Paso and Douglas counties didn’t emerge until the 1960s or later.

In fact, since 1920, Boulder County voters have gone for the Republican presidential candidate more often than the Democratic candidate, including lopsided victories for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

“That’s fascinating,” Noel said.

In 1960, Democrat John Kennedy beat Republican Richard Nixon by only 151 votes in Denver.

Depression era quandary

The only runaway Democratic Party victories were Franklin Roosevelt’s first two wins, in 1932 and 1936, and Lyndon Johnson’s rout of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Even El Paso County voted for Roosevelt and Johnson in those elections.

Roosevelt’s victories put Colorado voters in a quandary, historians said.

Coloradans wanted a change in leadership because of the Depression, but the New Deal and its public works projects, including construction of the Red Rocks amphitheater, went against the state’s dislike of direction from Washington, D.C., Convery said.

One of the state’s two U.S. senators, “Big” Ed Johnson, a Democrat, and its Republican governor, Ralph Carr, were critics of the New Deal, Noel said.

“It really went against our conservative tendencies,” Convery said. “However, we did not say ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ “

But the Democratic diversion was short-lived. Colorado was one of the few states to vote for Roosevelt’s Republican rivals in 1940 and 1944.

Now, the Democrats think they have a real chance to win Colorado for the first time in decades. Both Barack Obama and John McCain’s top strategists have pointed to the state as the key battleground in the race for the presidency.

But Noel said this year’s election will have a hard time matching the drama of 1876.

“It’s probably the most important role Colorado has ever played,” he said.

“It certainly made a difference then.”

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