What a difference an incumbent president makes.
Just four years ago, there wasn’t a parking place to be found at Overland High School in Aurora, where Democrats from some 40 surrounding precincts gathered for caucuses.
That night, when the national spotlight shone on Colorado — among a number of key swing states casting ballots for presidential nominees on a crowded Super Tuesday — roughly 1,500 caucus-goers crammed the cafeteria at Overland, spilling into adjacent rooms and eventually taking over the school’s auditorium to accommodate the unprecedented crowds. The 2008 contest between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton drew record turnout, with some 120,000 Democrats showing up at precinct caucuses statewide. (Obama won with 66 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 32 percent.)
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, when Democrats didn’t have to decide who to support for president, and there was plenty of parking at Overland.
Across the state, an estimated 12,500 party faithful took part in Democratic precinct this year, with the highest participation in areas with hotly contested local races — but even in those places turnout was sparse. (Republicans, hoping to grab some early attention, moved their caucuses ahead by four weeks and saw roughly 56,000 faithful show up on Feb. 7 to deliver a surprise win for Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.)
At Overland, for example, three candidates competed in a straw poll — conducted after delegates to the Arapahoe County Assembly had already been picked, so it was just for show — for the party’s nod to replace term-limited state Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who is running for an open Senate seat this year.
The three hopefuls — Todd’s husband, Terry Todd, and young activists Jovan Melton and Andrew Bateman — spent caucus night prowling the Overland cafeteria, which had more than a few empty tables as an estimated 170 Democrats caucused there. (Another 44 Democrats from the remaining four precincts in House District 41 convened at Heather Gardens.)
Todd won the night’s straw poll with 39 percent of the vote, ahead of Melton’s 33 percent and Bateman’s 21 percent. Six percent were undecided.
It was the only contested race of the night for the Aurora Democrats.
“I’m delighted to see the good turnout tonight,” said outgoing state Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, casting her eyes across a sea of familiar faces. “Right now, we are at a turning point, and there is an urgency — an absolute urgency — that we get out and reelect Barack Obama.”
Other area candidates addressed the crowd, including rousing words from state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, whose district was redrawn to include precincts meeting at Overland, and state Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, who is moving to Aurora this month to mount a challenge to two-term Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman.
The rest of the nearly two hours spent caucusing at Overland was devoted to “plowing through” a pile of forms, as one caucus chairwoman put it, along with electing precinct leaders and delegates to nominating assemblies and conventions scheduled later this month — the starting point for Democrats wanting to attend the national convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September.
Aurora Democrat Barbara Sleep had an easy vote to cast for the delegate from her caucus, as she was the only one from her precinct who attended: she’s sending herself as a delegate to the county assembly, held in a couple weeks at Hinkley High School.
“It’ll be hard not to be elected,” she said with a chuckle, noting that she was pretty sure the vote would be unanimous.
Sleep, who recalled how crowded the cafeteria had been the past two years, said she’d had no intention of missing this year’s caucus, even if there wasn’t much to decide. “I thought it’s time that I take an active part,” she said. “I don’t have the right to complain if I don’t take a part.”
Democratic officials said they were happy with the turnout in a year without prominent contested races.
“Tonight Coloradans from all 64 counties said, ‘I’m in’ for President Obama and Colorado Democrats,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio after the activities. “For Coloradans, the choice could not be clearer between President Obama’s commitment to an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, and skills for American workers, and an extreme candidate like Gov. Mitt Romney who would raise taxes on middle class families to protect tax loopholes for millionaires and billionaires, and who built his career laying off American workers while shipping their jobs overseas.”
Palacio laid it on thick against Romney because the former Massachusetts governor was in the process of winning six of the 10 states voting in Republican primaries on this year’s Super Tuesday, though Santorum’s win in three states looked like enough to keep the nomination battle going.
Though it generated some controversy on blogs and final results were incomplete, it looks like an attempt to encourage “uncommitted” votes in the presidential contest by the Progressive Democrats of Colorado — a group sponsored by the state party — had mostly fizzled. (Democrats had a choice between Obama and “uncommitted” in a presidential preference poll conducted at the start of caucuses.)
In a lengthy plea to Democrats posted the day before caucuses, the group’s co-chairs, DPS board member Andrea Mérida and Park County vice chairman Dennis Obduskey, listed numerous disagreements with the Obama administration, including ties by administration officials to the financial industry, the ongoing detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and a lack of restrictions on hydraulic “fracking” to release natural gas deep underground.
“The campaign arm of the Obama Administration, ‘Organizing for America’ must look to recalibrate its purpose from one hoping to create an army of lemmings, to one tasked with moving towards a constitutional amendment to abolish the effects of Citizens United and work to remove money from politics, not further entrench it through a self-sustaining system that instead circumvents the Democratic Party altogether,” Mérida and Obduskey wrote.
While they said they supported Obama’s reelection, they noted that an “uncommitted” vote might send a message to support progressive values.
While some precincts at Overland voted ahead party platform resolutions concerned with some of the issues raised by Mérida and Obduskey, the delegate strategy fell short. Out of more than 200 votes cast in the presidential preference poll, just four went to “uncommitted.”