The Rocky Mountain region is no longer considered “flyover” country and with each election cycle the growing influence of states like Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Nevada grows. For candidates vying for the Western vote, it’s important they understand and talk about the issues and values unique to our region: at the top of the list is access to the great outdoors .
New public opinion research from the Center for Western Priorities in Colorado—one of the West’s hotly contested battleground states—buttresses how important it is for candidates to appeal to the outdoor vote. The poll demonstrates the value Coloradans and the state’s swing voters place on access to outdoor spaces for hiking, hunting, skiing, and other recreational pursuits.
The 2016 Winning the West poll consists of 1,083 interviews of likely voters across Colorado, including an oversample of Latino voters and voters in three important swing counties (Arapahoe, Jefferson, and Larimer).
Here are five takeaways candidates should keep in mind when campaigning for the outdoor vote in Colorado:
1) Public lands and access to the great outdoors is what makes Colorado special
Out of all the responses, one particular issue consistently rose to the top. In Colorado, voters are passionate about the quality of life that living near the mountains and public lands provides. An overwhelming 99 percent of poll respondents believe that the mountains and outdoors are what make living in Colorado special. One independent voter hit the nail on the head when he said:
“I just think there are so many different things that you can do. You can go on the lake. You can go camping. You can go hiking, skiing, ice skating. Like you guys said, it’s a beautiful state. We need to protect it. It’s outdoor people that live here.”
2) Voters prioritize policies that protect public lands
Candidates looking to sway key voters like independents, Latinos, and swing Republicans and Democrats should appeal to the outdoor ethic that Coloradans themselves point to as the state’s defining characteristic. Even in the face of more traditional election year issues like health care and education, 59 percent of Colorado voters say that a candidate’s position on public lands, water, and wildlife is very important, outranking domestic energy production by 10 percent. In fact, when economic growth comes at the risk of closing some outdoor spaces, voters overwhelmingly support protecting our outdoor spaces over development.
The results remain strongly pro-public lands when you pull out key voting blocs, like Latino and swing voters.
3) Outdoor spaces are a key to Colorado’s robust economy
Even though Colorado voters prioritize conservation over development, they recognize that protecting public lands does not preclude economic growth. Whether it’s record visitation numbers at Rocky Mountain National Park or a business attracted to the state’s premier access to the outdoors, Colorado’s economy is dependent on our public lands and recreation opportunities. 93 percent of swing voters agree that Colorado’s public lands are an essential part of Colorado’s economy.
4) Voters are turned off by extreme positions on land and energy issues
Regardless of political party, Westerners favor thoughtful and pragmatic policies. Candidates seeking voter support in the West are wise to find a common sense view that balances conservation, economic use, and public enjoyment of our lands.
When asked to choose between two potential candidates, Colorado voters invariably gravitate towards the more balanced approach. Interestingly, Independents favor a balanced message regardless of party affiliation. Candidates looking to target key groups should consider steering clear of extreme proposals at either end of the political spectrum.
5) Coloradans want a candidate who’s honest and authentic
Focus group participants also stressed the need for candidates to have an authentic outdoor experience when visiting Colorado, not just “a pair of jeans and cowboy boots.” One swing Republican said:
“I think people like real people, not the fake politician. We’re all pretty down to earth. We like simple things like riding our bikes and going fishing. When you come in and you’re doing the whole, ‘I’m one of you,’ and it just comes off as fake. If you’re just who you are, that does better with everyone can they can relate to that. That’s who they want to be, just who they are.”
Candidates passing through the West should take the time to sit down and talk about the landscapes Westerners cherish, to visit the region’s parks, monuments, and forests, and to get outside and go where the voters are. If not, they are missing a powerful opportunity to forge an authentic connection with voters in the West.