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What do voters want candidates to focus on this election?

Survey respondents express frustration with polarization and attack politics
Evanne Caviness walks through a gate after checking on cattle Tuesday, June 4, 2024, at her and her husband Tyson’s ranch near Bayfield. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Jun 3, 2024
Ballots to hit mailboxes this week in La Plata County

Thousands of Coloradans responding to a survey by their local newsrooms say candidates competing for their votes this year need to be focused primarily on several broad issues: democracy and good government, the economy and cost of living, the environment, climate and natural resources, immigration and abortion.

Which concerns weigh most heavily on respondents’ minds changes with their politics. Conservatives in the survey prioritized immigration and the economy, followed by the state of the government. Moderates and liberals, in contrast, chose democracy and good government as their top issue by a wide margin.

“If we don’t have free and informed citizens with equal access to the ballot box, then we won’t have democracy and the country won't be worth preserving,” Marcus Pohlmann, a Highlands Ranch resident and a professor emeritus of political science, wrote in a comment that was echoed by many others.

The survey is a part of an ongoing effort among more than 60 Colorado newsrooms, including The Durango Herald, to ask, listen and respond to what voters in their communities say matters to them most. As part of the Voter Voices project, we are asking our communities, among other things, to rank their top three issues among 13 categories.

An issue’s ranking reveals its importance to voters, but not the nuances of their views. Those nuances are emerging in the answer to the survey’s core question: “What do you want candidates to talk about as they compete for your vote?”

So far, more than 4,500 Coloradans have answered that question. The vast majority to date self-identify as white and liberal or moderate and live along the densely populated – and deeply blue – Front Range. But voters in red, rural communities and purple suburbs are also responding. And lots of people have lots they want to say to politicians:

From Colorado Springs: “Enshrining marriage equality in the Colorado constitution … LGBTQIA+ rights are at the top of my list. I identify as lesbian/queer, and my wife (they/them) is nonbinary and masc-presenting. The threat to our personal liberty from the right is terrifying.”

From Grand Junction: “I want everyone to be consistent in their framework and philosophies issue to issue. Wanting to control bodies and love and calling for unfettered freedom for guns and LLCs is inherently incongruent. I want somebody who values civil liberty.”

From Littleton: “Need to address returning Roe vs Wade. Such a big deal that made our country turn back time. No one should govern another person’s body. Period.”

From Fort Collins: “The pursuit of unsustainable (population) growth is inexcusable and should be dropped. This includes the ridiculous YIMBY (aka real estate developer) policies.”

From Fremont County: “Illegal immigration, violations of our constitutional 2nd right amendment, stopping the Trump tax cuts which will result in higher taxes, economy/cost of living, increasing oil and gas production.”

From Fort Morgan: “I would like them to talk about how high and unreasonable the cost of living has become. Do we pay rent and insurance but go hungry?”

From Denver: “Housing, housing, housing. The cost of living is too high and it is primarily driven by the high cost of housing. We need to break down legal barriers and construct housing of all types, especially in dense urban areas and around transit.”

From Durango: “The homeless situation is out of control. Vets, young families, panhandlers on corners, and those without jobs, how do states handle this?? Immigrants brought in who are seeking asylum?? Monies going out to countries in need vs. our own country … I think we need to focus on our economy and our homeland first.”

Joe Brooks, a 53-year-old father of elementary-school-age children who lives in Thornton, summed up a common sentiment while acknowledging political reality: “I’d love to hear them talk more about what’s really really at stake, which is personal liberty and freedom. Everybody really wants that, but people disagree on how that looks.”

Highlights from the survey

  • Many self-identified conservatives, who chose immigration as a top concern, are calling for closure of the southern border and the deportation of both recent asylum-seekers and people who’ve lived here long term without documentation.
  • Those who identified as liberal named “abortion” as a top-three concern, closely followed by the economy and then social justice and equity.
  • Young people, those 18 to 29, put the economy and cost of living in the No. 1 spot, followed by democracy, then the environment. Social justice and equity comes up No. 4. However, this group, like conservatives, is underrepresented in the responses so far.
  • Survey respondents express much higher trust in the fairness of local elections than in national ones, but conservatives indicate far more distrust in both. Six in 10 self-identified conservatives say they have no confidence in the fairness of the national election and nearly a quarter express the same lack of faith in the local elections.
  • Looking at survey responses overall, without accounting for political lean, urban, suburban and rural residents who responded to the survey share the same top concerns in the same order: Democracy, economy, environment, immigration and abortion. But rural respondents follow that up with “personal liberty” as their next-highest concern while urban and suburban residents named “social justice and equity.”
  • National and international politics course through the responses and many survey respondents have litmus-test questions for candidates: Do you believe Trump won the 2020 election? Do you support the overturn of Roe v. Wade? Do you support continued funding for Ukraine? For Israel? Do you have a plan to address climate change? Do you support the complete separation of church and state?
  • While national politics dominate these bright-line questions, there is no shortage of questions about local concerns. People responding to their local newsrooms’ surveys are asking about traffic on Tower Road, Front Range air quality, rebuilding the Douglas County health department, homelessness on the Western Slope, health care on the Eastern Plains, land-use policies (everywhere), low-income housing for seniors in Mesa County, and workforce housing in Routt County.
  • A note on the survey itself: This is not a scientific survey. Data on race and ethnicity was flawed and will be included in later stories.

One of the most striking takeaways from the survey so far is how many respondents answered the question of what they want candidates to talk about with how they want candidates to speak. Without rancor, without partisanship, posturing or platitudes, and with commitments to compromise, transparency and pragmatism.

“How they will get over petty partisan bickering and actually do the job they were elected to do,” Tim Samuelson, a 42-year-old self-described moderate who lives in Denver, wrote in his survey response. “Form policies together that aren’t fringe issues that the majority of the public doesn’t think about on a daily basis. Get to work, quit the gamesmanship.”

Put more bluntly by another survey respondent: “How they plan to fix this mess, not what a jackass the other guy is. We already know that.”

Hyper-partisanship is a perennial lament about politics. But the sharp – and sometimes plaintive – edge in the call for candidates to work together seems in part intensified by the sense among respondents that the stakes are just too high now to do otherwise.

That sentiment surfaces in the big-picture responses: democracy in peril, the planet in danger, our personal and civil liberties under attack. But anxiety also simmers in respondents’ day-to-day concerns, worries that can be summed up with: can’t buy a house, can’t afford rent, our roads are bad, our schools need help, farming is under threat, taxes are unfairly assessed and distributed, traffic is killing us, our health care system is broken, the gap between the haves and have-nots has become a chasm and I’m never, ever, making it to the other side.

In the face of all that, Samuelson, who is also the father of three young children whom he worries will grow up with fewer opportunities and more threats, finds the partisan sniping not simply intolerable, but irresponsible.

“I just get the feeling from so many politicians that it’s about being heard and seen and having that platform instead of the desire to govern,” he said in an interview.

Evanne Caviness holds her son, Arlo, 4 months old, while looking over Dulce, her quarter horse, on Tuesday at her and husband’s ranch near Bayfield. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Bayfield resident Evanne Caviness shares Samuelson’s frustration and builds upon it.

In her response to the Herald’s survey, Caviness emphasized a point made by other respondents: She and her husband, and the things that concern them, cannot be reduced to one side of the partisan line or the other.

“I’m progressive in social issues, but I’m also a rural rancher,” she wrote in her survey. “So we don’t fit neatly in a box like many candidates treat us.”

Caviness lives in the 3rd Congressional District, the massive, sprawling home to mansions and mobile home parks, to the mountains that nestle Aspen west through farmland and public lands, south into tribal nations, through villages built on Spanish land grants and working-class Pueblo neighborhoods into the southeastern Plains.

Evanne Caviness checks on cattle Tuesday at her and husband Tyson’s ranch near Bayfield. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Caviness wants it made plain that she is as complex as her district. She is 27. She is Latina, Indigenous and white. She married her high school sweetheart and they are now first-generation farmers and ranchers who sell grass-fed beef, and, so, yeah, they’d like a word with Gov. Jared Polis about his “MeatOut” day. But Caviness also works for the nonprofit National Young Farmers Coalition and she is dedicated to eliminating systemic barriers that have kept young people and people of color out of agriculture.

She wants a candidate eager to sit on the House Agriculture committee. She wants a candidate who will recognize structural racism as real. She wants a candidate who knows what the price of land and cattle is doing to farmers and ranchers. She wants a candidate who understands that she can hold down a full-time job and help her husband on the ranch and still need to go to a local food program twice a month to ease the strain on the grocery budget. She wants a candidate to do more than sympathize with the fact that she has to drive two of the couple’s three young children nearly six hours to Denver to see a medical specialist because they can’t get the care they need in rural Colorado.

Evanne Caviness checks on cattle Tuesday at her and husband Tyson’s ranch near Bayfield. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Stickers decorate Evanne and Tyson Caviness’ rooftop carrier on their Subaru at their ranch near Bayfield. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Caviness doesn’t agree with some of the politics of her older, conservative neighbors, but says that she and her husband will drop everything to answer their call for help with the cows or anything else.

“That’s just who we are as a community,” she said.

And so she wants that, too – a candidate who has a concrete plan to build on common ground rather than exploit divides.

“So long as we are distracted by whatever is trending on social media at the moment, whatever outrageous thing we have to be mad about now, it’s, like, OK, but yeah, young farmers are still not going to be able to buy land,” Caviness says. “My kids are still going to have to go to Denver to go to the audiologist and I have to pay for that out of pocket. These are issues that are still happening while you are debating something ridiculous that doesn’t affect us on the day to day.”

Tina Griego is the managing editor of the Colorado News Collaborative, which is leading the Voter Voices project. Megan Verlee is the public affairs editor at Colorado Public Radio, the project’s lead partner.

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