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Voters In Colorado and Kansas Are Tuning Out This Year's Election

Tight races in battleground states tend to mobilize voters, but conversations in Colorado and Kansas reflect a palpable sense of disillusionment this electoral cycle.
Photo via Flickr

Are you jazzed about this year's election, or could you not care less?

This week, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that, unlike previous electoral cycles, interest in the upcoming midterms has not increased as the November 4th election day approaches. During the 2010 midterms, interest rose from 51 percent in June to 61 percent by October. A similar trend occurred in 2006, but the proportion of people who are enthusiastic about this year's election — roughly half of all respondents — hasn't spiked in the same span.


During a recent visit to Colorado and Kansas, battleground states with close Senate and gubernatorial races, my conversations with voters seemed to reflect the same picture.

People appeared to be somewhat interested yet simultaneously jaded by the election. Negative campaigning, the saturation of the airwaves by special interest groups, disgust at the prevalence of money in politics, and a frequently cited disconnect with leaders in Washington have all led to a palpable sense of disillusionment.

The psychic weariness following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the trauma of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, and the letdown felt by many following President Barack Obama's promise of "hope and change" has fostered a sense that institutions in general, and government in particular, are failing society.

More recent events — including the string of recent disasters in the Middle East, the scandals that have afflicted government agencies from the Secret Service and Department of Veterans Affairs, and the seemingly endless fight over domestic issues like Obamacare — have only strengthened the perception that leaders in Washington are unable to manage problems at home and abroad.

Obama's overall job approval rating was 42 percent this week, while his handling of foreign policy hit a low of just 31 percent. Meanwhile, approval of Congress stands at just 14 percent.

Young people seem to be the most turned off.


"It's ironic, because young people have a lot more at stake in any particular election than more senior Americans," Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) told VICE News, emphasizing the importance of the environmental issues at stake during the midterms. "They have their whole future ahead of them. So when we're talking about quality of life, environmental issues, and renewable energy, we're talking about our lifetime. We're talking about the lifetime of somebody in their 20s or 30s and how it affects the geopolitical landscape, how it affects the air they breathe, how it affects the price they pay for energy, how it affects the quality of their life."

Colorado's tight Senate race between incumbent Democrat Mark Udall and Republican challenger Cory Gardner, as well as its dead-heat gubernatorial race between incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper and Republican Bob Beauprez, has prompted an attack-ad blitz. Outside groups have already spent $14 million on the state's elections, and the negative campaigning isn't improving the public's perception of politics.

"My 8-year-old son said to me after the Broncos game that he was so sick of all the political ads during the commercials," Rueben Munger, a 41-year-old investor in clean energy technologies and a trustee of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which promotes the sustainable use of resources, told VICE News. "Nearly every ad was from an outside group — yes on this proposition, no on that one, ads against Udall or Gardner, and on and on. I think he speaks for how many Coloradans feel."


It's not just Coloradans. The same sentiment exists in Marion, Kansas — a predominantly Republican town with approximately 2,000 residents.

"I just quit listening to the ads on TV because all it is is bashing," a 62-year-old named Peggy told VICE News. "You have to read to get your news."

She was nevertheless of a mind that more people are paying attention to this year's midterms "because there's so much controversy".

In Kansas' Senate race, senior Republican Senator Pat Roberts is competing against independent challenger Greg Orman. The campaign seems to have drawn the ire of many Kansans. Because Orman explored running for the Senate as a Democrat in 2008, some Kansans are distrustful of his status as an Independent. For his part, Roberts has found himself under fire for not living in the state.

Peggy is a volunteer server at Zimmerman's Deli and Coffee Shop, which sits along Marion's picturesque Main Street and is run by a tattooed friend of hers named Ida.

"It's mostly the older people who talk about the election, people over 40," Ida told VICE News.

"My granddaughter is 19 and she doesn't give a hoot," Peggy chimed in.

"It depends on how they were raised," Ida continued. "If you take them in to vote when they were younger…"

Peggy shot back, "I took her in to vote, and she still doesn't give a hoot."

Of course, there are others who aren't so disengaged.

Renee Ramge, a 50-year-old photographer from Carbondale, Colorado, told VICE News that she feels as though "her hair is on fire" this election season. She is particularly passionate about the fate of Colorado's proposed Amendment 67, which would extend the legal status of "personhood" to fetuses.


Renee is deeply concerned about the potential implications of Amendment 67, telling VICE News that it "could potentially criminalize my daughter for choosing to prevent pregnancy — a right I've enjoyed my entire life and exercised even while married." She fears that the measure would subject women who suffer miscarriages to investigations, and make in vitro fertilization illegal.

Renee describes herself as a "passionate feminist" who believes that "it's the right thing to let a woman make a choice, because it's her body and no one else's business."

But she has been disappointed that most of her friends, many of whom who share her views, have been less engaged than in previous electoral cycles in Colorado, where similar initiatives were defeated in 2008 and 2010.

"I can't stand that supporters of this amendment are using the emotional premise of losing a baby in a tragic situation as a way to push the pro-life agenda," Renee said. "And I'm making sure that all my friends know that this poorly written amendment is a danger to all Coloradans, women especially."

In Kansas, 54-year-old Craig Gabel, who heads the Tea Party-affiliated Kansans for Liberty — an umbrella organization that encompasses 35 conservative groups — is likewise discouraged that many on his side in this election seem to be "asleep."

"The apathy level is enormous, mostly because of the dissatisfaction level," he told VICE News. "I'm not sure there's anybody out there that feels excited about anything anywhere, you know what I mean?"

Gabel was comforted that Democrats appear to be even more uninterested in the elections, however.

"What the polls don't show is that Democrats are even more asleep or more disenchanted than Republicans," he said.

Ari Ratner is a fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner

Photo via Flickr