In the 2010 midterm elections, Colorado was one of the main battleground states. Gov. Bill Ritter (D) chose Michael Bennett (D) to fill outgoing Senator Ken Salazar's (D) spot. Immediately, Republicans believed they had a pickup opportunity and polls showed Bennett in a close race. To add to Bennett's worries, he faced a challenge from Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D) who had the support of the netroots and Bill Clinton. In August, while Democrats across the country were facing poor polling numbers, Bennett was improving his numbers as he won the primary and extremist Ken Buck (R) won the Republican nomination for Senate. Bennett ran ads on social issues, highlighting how Bennett opposes a woman's right to an abortion in almost all cases. Bennett hoped these ads would help him win moderate voters in Denver's suburbs, a crucial swing area. While Democrats lost two U.S House seats and the State House, Bennett won by 16,000 votes. Here is a statewide map of the results of the Senate race:
Here is a map of the 2008 Presidential election results:
What is interesting about the results is that while Obama won by 9 points and Bennett won by only 1, the county map is almost identical except for Chaffee County which Bennett won by less than one point but Obama lost by about the same margin. Why though did Obama do much better than Bennett while winning almost all the same counties? Did Bennett win by turning out Colorado's Democratic base or winning over moderate voters?
While the maps look nearly identical, the results tell a different story. Take a look at El Paso County for example, The Republicans' most populous base county and one of the most conservative. Buck won there by 28 points. McCain only won there by 19 points in an election where he had trouble turning out the base. For the Democrats, a base county to examine is ski resort county Gunnison County. In 2008, Obama turned out the Democratic base and won Gunnison County by 28 points. Bennett however won Gunnison County by 15 points. The overall shift from 2008 to 2010 was Democrats -8 points but in Gunnison County, the shift was -13 for Democrats. Did Gunnison have large number of swing voters or an enthusiasm gap? It was certainly an enthusiasm gap because the turnout levels in 2010 in Gunnison County were 46% of 2008's levels.The overall statewide turnout level in 2010 was 70% of 2008. Now we shall examine Jefferson County, a swing county in Denver's suburbs. It is one of the main bellwether counties in the state along with Larmier County. Bennett won there by 2 points while Obama won there by 9, showing a -7 shift for Democrats, below the statewide average. Jefferson is filled with the moderate suburban voters whom Bennett hoped to win.
Overall, the county results show that there was indeed an enthusiasm gap with Buck triumphing in heavily Republican areas and Bennett facing low turnout in some Democratic areas. Bennett was able to make up the difference though by relying on persuasion instead of turnout. Buck's teabagger persona excited his base but his extremism on abortion rights and gay issues caused the moderate voters to be averse to his extremism and vote for Bennett. In the Senate races, many of the close races the Republicans lost were races with extremists such as Nevada where Harry Reid (D) beat back a challenge from extremist Sharron Angle (R) who had extreme opinions such as eliminating social security and the Department of Education. Republicans had an opportunity to win more Senate seats but instead of pandering to moderate voters, they pandered to the base too strongly. To win elections, both Republican and Democratic candidates have to find a balance between a base candidate where they scare away moderates or a moderate candidate where they anger the base.