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National Politics|By Amy Walter, September 18, 2013

Last week, Republicans successfully recalled two sitting Democratic state legislators who supported gun control legislation, including one from a district that gave Obama almost 60 percent of the vote. In the aftermath of this surprising outcome, many Democrats blamed “voter suppression,” arguing that an inability to vote by mail disenfranchised their base. Meanwhile, Republicans involved in the recall fight called it a victory for those who “will not tolerate an imposition of un-checked government over-reach on their lives.” Moreover say those Republicans, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who signed the gun legislation into law, will be extremely vulnerable in 2014.

Both sides have valid points. However, their reasoning is incomplete. Here are the three takeaways from the recall elections:

1) Gun Rights Voters More Engaged Than Gun Control Voters

Democrats came into last week’s election with a spending and campaign performance advantage. According to data from the pro-Democratic targeting group Atlas Project and the ad tracking firm CMAG, 94 percent of all broadcast ads run in these two races were pro-Democrat. The incumbents – Sens. John Morse and Angela Giron -  also represented districts that had voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections.

But, when it comes to guns, national data tell us that those who oppose gun control are more politically engaged than those who are in favor of gun control. A May Pew Research Center poll found that 45 percent of those who support gun rights had taken some sort of political activity on the issue (signed a petition; contributed money to a gun policy group, etc.). Meanwhile, just 26 percent of those who support gun control had taken similar actions.

Moreover, these recall elections took place not in liberal Denver or Boulder, but in the more politically moderate southeastern part of the state, where gun ownership is more prevalent and more accepted.

2) Low Turn-Out Benefits More Passionate Base

No one should be surprised about the fact that a special election held at an odd time in an odd-numbered year would see a drop off in voting. In a pre-election day memo, the pro-Democratic voter targeting group Atlas Project wrote “the enthusiasm gap and likely low turnout of the oddly timed election will probably help Republicans. According to Catalist, (a pro-Democratic voter and data vendor) the most reliable voters in these districts are more Republican than registered voters there as a whole."

That turned out to be right on target. In both senate districts, turn-out was down almost 10 points from 2010 and down 20 points from 2012. Democratic candidates easily carried both senate districts in 2010 and 2012. In 2011, when turn-out was even lower than this year, a ballot initiative raising sales and income taxes were soundly defeated in these districts.

In other words, in a "normal" election Democrats do well. In off-times they don't.

The Atlas Project notes that in the more competitive Colorado Springs-based district (held by Sen. Morse), Republican "super voters" - those who turned out to vote in every election since 2010 - outnumbered Democrats by five points.

However, that still doesn't totally explain what happened in the heavily Democratic Pueblo-based district where Democratic "super voters" make up 52 percent of the super-voting universe. In fact, it suggests, as some have argued, that Democrats did turn-out in Pueblo. But, they voted against the Democratic candidate.

3) No Vote By Mail Was A Factor, But Not The Whole Story

Earlier this summer, the Libertarian party filed a lawsuit arguing that the compressed time frame for signature gathering was unconstitutional. The judge ruled with the Libertarians, and lengthened the deadline for ballot access. However, that meant there was not enough time to print ballots and get them in the mail in time for the September election. Many Democrats point to the inability for voters to vote by mail as a big reason for the steep drop-off in voter turn-out. Some, including defeated Democratic Sen. Angela Giron, called the lack of vote-by-mail option “voter suppression.”

To be sure, Democratic voters in Giron’s district have been more adept at voting by mail. In 2012, 66 percent of Democrats in her district voted by mail compared to 58 percent of Republicans. One Colorado Democratic consultant explained her defeat to me as this: “Voters are used to getting mail ballots. They didn't. It's that simple.”

But, Democrats knew that there would be no vote-by-mail in August. And they surely had the names of the 21,977 Democrats who voted by mail in 2012. So, why didn’t they do a better job educating, targeting, and turning out those habitual mail-only voters to the ballot box?

Democrats I spoke with said that it was simply too difficult to get their voters to go to the polls instead of the mail-box. “The fact that so many Colorado Dems vote via a method that was almost completely unavailable to them for this election," was a serious barrier to Democratic GOTV efforts said one strategist. It also reinforces the earlier point that passionate and/or angry voters are the ones willing to make the time to physically go to a voting location.

So, what does this mean for Democrat Gov. Hickenlooper who is up in 2014? Polling taken over the summer by Quinnipiac showed the Democrat statistically tied with former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo. While my colleagues at National Journal argue that the poll greatly overstates the population of blue-collar white voters (i.e., GOP voters), the fact remains that the state is much more competitive than Hickenlooper's 2010 race suggests.  And, as my colleague Jennifer Duffy notes, Hickenlooper’s potential vulnerability is not just about guns. In addition to gun control laws, Hickenlooper signed renewable energy mandates that fell disproportionately on rural Colorado and Medicaid expansion under health care reform, among others.  Hickenlooper's most controversial action was one he took without the involvement of the state legislature.  He granted a temporary reprieve to Nathan Dunlap, who was sentenced to death for murdering four employees at a Chuck E. Cheese.

However, like 2010, it looks as if Hickenlooper will once again be blessed with a weak challenger. In other words, Hickenlooper looks a lot stronger because the bench of Republicans in Colorado is so weak.
While it's dangerous to read too much into a low turn-out special election, it's also dangerous to rely too much into past election performance. Turn-out is driven not simply by allegiance to party, but also by interest in the issues and the candidates. Voters in purple states are also much less forgiving of politicians who stray too far from the ideological 50-yard line. Democrats may have a serious edge over Republicans in the technology of targeting. But, if the folks you are targeting aren't sufficiently enthusiastic or energized by your candidate, all the technology and money in the world can't make them cast a vote.