2013 Colorado Election Prediction

I find most political commentary spurious – either so far in advance that no one remembers how inaccurate it was, or done only in hindsight where one is merely suggesting explanations for outcomes already known. Far more interesting are predictions just prior to events — particularly when there is not enough polling data to attract Nate Silver. So as in previous years, I am publishing my thoughts just as voting closes (and then slipping back into sabbatical).

There is also a facet of the 2013 elections that add to the general uncertainty. In Colorado, the election is by mail, which make previous results less relevant and predictive.  I’m pretty sure something here will be horribly wrong. Your guess is as good as mine as to what it will be.

Amendment 66.
A66 continues to posit a question that we are unlikely to answer anytime soon: how much money should we spend on K-12 public education? Reasonable people disagree, often substantially. Per student, Colorado spends less than the national average, which is in turn far higher than any other developed nation.  There is no clear answer on what amount is sufficient (in no small part because a correlation to quality is not evident), so will voters support an extra billion dollars each year for uncertain outcomes?

I don’t think so. The difficulties with this initiative are numerous, and its passage would require the delicate threading of a volatile needle. It does no discredit to A66 supporters to admire the accomplishment of getting to this point. However there are far too many issues to overcome, and the political atmosphere has created additional barriers. My guess is that A66 fails by somewhere around six to seven percentage points.

To start, this became a partisan effort that passed without the support of a single Republican legislator. It was then joined to string of related political consequences, which culminated in heightened partisan rhetoric, recall elections, an energized opposition, and a weakened Governor. Most of these headwinds were not apparent back in late April, when the legislative companion to A66 was passed.

Previous history is not encouraging. The model for success is Referendum C, which  passed in 2005 by a 53%-47% vote, however this was done with a bipartisan effort including a Republican Governor publicly breaking with many in his party, and full support from the business community.  The landmark education reform of SB 191 likewise found support on both sides of the political aisle.  Partisan groups have far more sway now, it is a tougher economic climate, there is no substitutive coalition outside invested interest groups.

And education advocates were divided as well. A talking point in favor of the legislation was that it met the first rule of political compromise: everyone has something in it that they hate.  While this may be a positive attribute in the statehouse, it is far less compelling in the ballot box, and the same lack of enthusiasm that provided credibility in the legislature is an albatross in a campaign.  This has led to Democratic support that is fairly tepid. Often overlooked in the 2011 trouncing of Prop 103 by nearly 30 points was that it lost handily in Denver county – education funding is no longer a party cornerstone.

A66 supporters raised considerable money, and in an off-year election without much organized opposition the hope was sheer will might enable them to prevail.  But to my eye, the money has not accomplished the goals.  The spirit behind A66 was a grand bargain of strong reforms accompanied by a large infusion of taxpayers dollars. But the marketing I have seen to support A66 focuses on sports, art and music (see “Bring Back Gym Class“). These are education’s vitamins, not prescriptions — the image of elementary students twirling hula-hoops seems to inadvertently reverse the campaign’s tagline of “Big Change, Small Price.”  Compare these with the opposing advertisements.

The sheer imbalance of money  — supporters raised over $10 million, opponents closer to $100 thousand — was intended to produce a large Democratic turnout in an off-year election. But the energized Republican base fresh off recall election victory seems to have more momentum. The recent news of support from outsiders like Gates and Bloomberg — especially cast in the lingering shadow of the recall elections — might well be worth more in free PR value to opponents than it is helpful to supporters. A66 is not in danger because the campaign lacks resources, but because it does not have an articulated message that sums anywhere near its $1 billion cost.

Having attracted national attention, a defeat of Amendment 66 may be sized upon as a watershed moment: taxpayers want education reform but are unwilling to foot the bill. I don’t believe this narrative holds — in my mind, the moment this initiative became intimately attached to partisan politics it was going to be at the mercy of some harsh political winds. The bill also has considerable flaws — structured to mostly fit within the existing funding parameters and adapted to suit a long list of legacy interest groups meant it is so complex as to be virtually impenetrable.

In my mind, it is as big a mistake to assume that the passage of A66 will necessarily lead to better outcomes as it is to assume that its failure is sure to end in outright despair. Especially post-Laboto, the political reality is that many people are rightly leery of the existing district cost infrastructure (including significant pension obligations), particularly given the utter lack of transparency into district spending. Without a legal or legislative remedy, fiscal change may have to be more structural. I firmly believe that forests can  arise from the ashes of A66, but it will take some time.

DougCo School Board:
I don’t follow DougCo close enough to weigh in on individual races, but there is far more at stake and of interest there than in DPS.  To give you a sense of the distance between the respective board races, consider that the same media strategy firm that is working with the slate identified as pro-union in DougCo is also the primary consultant for the slate identified as pro-reform in Denver, and the two groups share much common ground. In Denver, the dispute is between Democrats.  In DougCo, it has a far more partisan and ideological bent.

DougCo — primarily due to its relative affluence — has generally good schools, and interestingly the election is framed as a status quo group of reformers vs. candidates wanting change (predominantly by undoing the reforms).  That tells me that the reform efforts are well-grounded, and I just don’t see the swell of unhappiness or poor performance that would lead an electorate to choose a new direction, despite the aggressive and political overtones.  Of the four candidates (Reynolds, Geddes, Benevento and Silverthorn) viewed as a block to continue current reform policies, two also have the advantages of incumbency. My guess is at least three will win, and as a petri dish for reform, DougCo will be infinitely more interesting to observe than DPS, and potentially considerably messy.

Denver School Board:
If you believe the rhetoric, this is the Most Important Election in the History of Denver Public Schools – a distinction it somehow carries for the third straight election. The importance of this vote is vastly overstated.  It has interest, but for a very different reason: there are no elected incumbents running for any of the four seats. Which ever way it goes, DPS will have a Board with the fewest legacy ties to existing policy in its history, and that is the opportunity that bears watching.

One of the real flaws of the previous 4-3 board is that the majority had to present themselves as a unified front in full protection of an administration under siege from the minority.  That is likely to change, and the real story will be if a new board will assert its ability to constructively challenge decisions, or continue to defend all policies in lockstep with an administration whose actions seem increasingly at odds with outcomes.

At-Large: Barbara O’Brien
The only interesting facet in this race is a system that allows someone like O’Brien — who has worked on education issues for decades and was Colorado’s Lieutenant Governor — to face an opponent with no apparent credentials or expertise. It shows how much Denver has changed that the at-large candidates opposed to current reforms are so consistently ineffective that they are neither competitive, nor extend any benefit to their compatriots in individual races. In 2011, Haynes won a 5-person race with almost 60%, and in 2009 Seawell won this seat in a two-person race with 71%. The mail-in ballot format may shift this a little, but it won’t be close (I would guess somewhere between the previous two). Nor should it be.

District 2: Rosemary Rodriquez
The most volatile of current incumbents, now well on her way to being an answer to a trivia question, ducked out once her main support understandably fled her presence, and the race is more of a respectful affair, albeit with considerable differences.  Rodriquez has long-standing ties to the community, and while her work has taken on a national bent recently, her reputation and the achievements of groups that she supported very early (such as several charter schools) is such that I think she should prevail – aided in part by a fairly muted campaign by her opponent, who almost gives the impression that she would prefer the visibility of a viable candidacy without the burden of serving in the position.

District 3: Mike Johnson
Johnson has run perhaps the best campaign of the four candidates (his opponent has been surprisingly inept), and has been aided by his ability to link with O’Brien. Initially regarded as an underdog, he goes into the final stage with some decent momentum.  Much has changed in the eight years of prior representation: District 3 constituents are increasingly supportive of reform, while their representative has grown increasingly opposed.  I think many want a shift.  At least one race in the past two elections has been decided by less than 200 votes – I think this one is a close but comfortable win – my guess is single digits, but a meaningful amount.

District 4: Landri Taylor
While Taylor’s long presence in the community is likely to prevail, this one is a little hard to call.  His opponent, Roger Kilgore, ran At-Large in 2011 and picked up 10,000 votes in a distant second place (the winner had over 50,000). Taylor has been a muted presence since being appointed to the Board in March, seems to rely far more on reputation than action, and has not had a particularly vibrant campaign.  I was disappointed in Kilgore’s recent assertions, and they either reflect someone with political naiveté or poll-inspired fear, but I think he would evolve to be a decent board member. This district is an odd one, and contains vastly different neighborhoods, including many discontented Stapleton parents, and some legacy bitterness over the FNE transformation, an odd combination that might be larger than expected.  My guess is that Taylor wins by a comfortable margin, but a close outcome would not be a total surprise.

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