From red to blue: Changing economics and demographics have driven Routt County’s presidential picks
October 2, 2016
Steamboat Springs — The numbers show it may have happened as early as 1992, but Geneva Taylor saw it first hand, in the flesh, in 2004, when she was helping a local candidate running for Routt County assessor.
They were campaigning, as Jack Taylor would say, the old fashioned way — on foot, door to door, in downtown Steamboat Springs, shaking hands and meeting voters face to face.
The Taylors had campaigned that way together for years on behalf of candidates, and on behalf of Jack, who was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives for four terms — eight years from 1993 to 2000 — and as a state senator from Northwest Colorado twice, from 2001 to 2008.
Geneva Taylor and her candidate running for county office were working hard that day in 2004, trying to win an election, but midway through it struck her.
Something was different.
Steamboat Springs had gone to the Democrats.
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"It was very evident, the people who had just moved in," Geneva Taylor said. "Some came from New Jersey, some from California, some from Texas. The Texans were still pretty Republican, but the other people were moving in from the cities."
Indeed, the numbers show Steamboat Springs' and Routt County's political leanings had shifted.
It doesn't mean anything in particular for a presidential candidate to carry Routt County. Presidential candidates win electors for winning the state, of course, not the county, Routt County isn't crucial to the overall result, making up just 0.5 percent of the state's vote in the last presidential election.
Still, a study of the county's presidential election returns tells much about the region, its growth, economic development and shifting political mindset.
The region has been both reliably red and bullishly blue at different points in history. It's voted for and against winners. It's cozied up to incumbents and challengers, and it's even glanced a few times at third party candidates.
Geneva Taylor was on to something in 2004. Steamboat Springs went to the polls that year and voted for John Kerry to replace George W. Bush in the White House, and the city's wealth of votes drug the county along with it.
Routt has been blue each of the last two elections, as well, helping Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and 2012.
It would seem to figure, then, that Routt County will yet again support the Democrat this November and rally behind Hillary Clinton.
But, it's changed its mind before.
Routt County changed its mind in a big way in 1952.
The coal mining industry that drove the local economy in the first half of the 20th century began to slow in the mid-1950s. The labor unions that had turned towns like Oak Creek, Phippsburg and Mount Harris into deep blue Democrat country — a legacy that endures there today — dwindled and in 1952, for the first time in 24 years, a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, carried Routt County.
He was the first Republican to win locally since Herbert Hoover, and there were plenty of reasons why.
"The personal appeal of Eisenhower accounts for a lot of the votes in 1952 and '56," said Tom Noel, professor of Colorado history at University of Colorado Denver. "He was very popular in Colorado. His wife, Mamie Eisenhower, was from a Denver family and he spent a lot of time here, especially in Grand County, a favorite fishing spot."
Locally, the support for Eisenhower signaled a political shift that would consume the next 40 years of Routt County politics.
The county would support nine of the next 10 Republican presidential nominees, the only outlier being the county's support for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964.
It voted for Richard Nixon to be president three different times, including over John F. Kennedy in 1960.
It supported Gerald Ford once and, overwhelmingly, Ronald Reagan twice, and in 1988, county voters supported George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis.
It wasn't an easy time to be a local Democrat.
"We had one really enthusiastic, really good chairman pushing the party," said Jim Stanko, a life-long Democrat with decades of work helping lead his party in Routt County. "When he quit, quite frankly, we could not come up with a good chairman. We elected someone once just because he came to the meeting."
Oak Creek and Phippsburg persisted as a South Routt Democratic stronghold, but they were just two spots of blue in what quickly became a sea of red.
Not only was Routt County suddenly voting Republican, it seemed to grow more Republican every four years.
Eisenhower won with 57 percent of the Routt County vote twice. Nixon took 60 percent in 1968, then 62 percent in 1972, winning in 12 of the 15 local precincts that year.
The trend grew even more pronounced during the Reagan years. He was elected with 65 and 67 percent majorities in 1980 and 1984 — the two most lopsided presidential outcomes in county history.
Local Democrats were able to win local offices on occasion and send several legislators to Denver. Stanko said they even won a charity softball game played again local Republicans.
Routt County Democrats also frequently had as little as $40 in the checking account with few people showing up for meetings and little overall enthusiasm.
Even as two-thirds of the county voted for Reagan in 1984, the seeds of political change were beginning to take root.
Back to blue
The change from that deep red territory to today's blue county started in Steamboat Springs.
Routt County's first precinct for decades represented Steamboat, and it was as Republican as a precinct can get. It voted for Republicans in every election save one from 1940 to 1988, usually with more than 60 percent of the vote.
It finally began to show weakness in 1988, however, giving its support for George H.W. Bush with just 51 percent.
Precinct 1 hasn't voted Republican since.
In 2012, 70 percent of that district's votes were for Barack Obama.
The change wasn't so much in the politics as it was in the people.
As tourism grew compared to other elements of the local economy, Steamboat's population boomed, quadrupling from 1970 to 2000.
"What happened was a lot of people moved to Steamboat, and they brought their ideas with them," Jack Taylor said.
Liberal newcomers didn't exactly show up as registered Democrats.
There were twice as many registered voters in 2004 as they had been in 1984, and the Republican party actually grew locally in that span while the local share of Democrats shrank, from 32 percent in 1984 to 27 percent in 2004.
Still, the growing segment of unaffiliated voters — 40 percent in 2004, up from 35 percent — helped John Kerry beat George W. Bush locally with 55 percent of the vote.
Registered Democrats or not, they proved to be far different voters than what Routt County had been seeing at the polls through much of the previous 50 years.
"The demographics of who was moving in was very different than those that grew up in the county," said Scott Ford, a local numbers guru. "Their education attainment was higher, and they were often more affluent. Likely there is a high correlation between these two factors and a voting shift in the county from one party to the other."
Except for a dip in 2011 during the economic recession, Routt County's population has continued to grow, and the majority of that growth has continued to come from people moving into town, rather than from local growth.
As a result, the county has continued to vote heavier and heavier for Democrats.
George W. Bush won locally in 2000 in a race in which Green Party candidate Ralph Nader pulled 8 percent of the vote, nearly four times the gap between Bush and Al Gore.
That's the only red bump locally since 1992, however.
One more twist?
The local election results are kept in the old Routt County Counthouse in downtown Steamboat Springs in a walk-in safe with a large spinning dial, and they offer a journey through local history.
Woodrow Wilson carried the county 104 years ago in the oldest records on hand. The Republican party was split that year, 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt, who'd already served as president from 1901 to 1909, mounted a third-party challenge against his own chosen successor, William Howard Taft.
That split didn't decide the race locally, however. Wilson scored almost exactly 50 percent of the vote and nearly 300 — or about 9 percent — more than any two other candidates combined.
It was a big year for local voters, who also decided which local town would serve as the county seat. (Steamboat was the overwhelming winner, with 1,768 votes to Oak Creek's 650.)
Democrats won seven of the first 10 elections in the county.
Now, more than 100 years later, plenty of things have changed. Those early election results still have room for votes from Craig and Maybell because Moffat County had only the year before been broken off into its own entity.
The town of Yampa was still known as Egeria and where today Steamboat commands eight precincts inside the city limits, it then just required one.
Whether Hillary Clinton can win the area as handily as Woodrow Wilson did remains to be seen, but considering the county's wild political swings in the ensuing 104 years, anything seems possible.