Noonan: Political parties must change or die. What then?

Author: Paula Noonan - March 17, 2017 - Updated: March 17, 2017

Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

Our political parties are approaching an end game. A quick look at March registration numbers tells the story. Among active voters, Democrats and Republicans are even in registration. Unaffiliated voter registrations exceed both parties by 200,000 people.

The short-term problem for Democrats in 2018 when voting numbers will be low is that Republicans have about 58,000 more voters in the 41-70 age range than Democrats. Many of these GOPers spent their youth and early adult years with Ronald Reagan as president. He adhered to a low tax and small government ideology.

The short-term problem for the GOP in 2020 when voting numbers will be high is that Dems have 100,000 more registered voters in the 18-40 range than Republicans. These voters spent their youth and early adult years with Barack Obama as president, and for many of them, he wasn’t progressive enough.

The 2018 election is critical for Republicans because they must take the governorship to have any shot at influencing redistricting and reapportionment in 2021. Given recent results in presidential elections, it’s likely that Democrats will retain at least the Colorado House and take the state Senate by 2020. The numbers put Democrats in a strong redistricting position.

Long term, both parties are looking at a deep generational divide. Lots of millennials who spent a “gap year” in Italy or France and/or a college term abroad in Germany or Scandinavia got a big dose of the European way of life: five weeks of vacation, ample paid family leave, stress time off and less worry about layoffs.

While Democrats don’t offer all those goodies, they come closer than the GOP. Women will benefit most from the European lifestyle, and as it stands now, 120,000 more women in Colorado have registered to vote than men.

Both political parties operate on sclerotic rules. It’s hard to imagine that the parties can organize effectively in enough time with the neighborhood precinct, house district and county structures that they have now. It’s just as hard to imagine that they will be able to develop winning “platforms” using the caucus resolution process that only voters over 71 understand. President Donald Trump’s tweeting, while it may be outrageous, at least is contemporary.

Looking at party action at the Capitol, nothing too adventurous or visionary is happening either left or right. Democrats will hope to hold on to the Medicaid expansion from the Affordable Care Act. Republicans hope to expand school choice and trim back gun restrictions.

Both parties are proposing an increase this year in state transportation funding through a sales tax initiative, but the bill is already running into anti-tax trouble from GOP senators and House members. If something positive doesn’t happen on transportation, both parties should fold their tents and go home.

Many other issues have festered for a decade or longer, unresolved. Most millennials were just born when TABOR, with all its economic implications, was passed.

This new generation will shift the balance between rural and urban Colorado in interesting ways. Rural mountain Colorado may find it more profitable to turn to recreational use of water rights and trim back on agriculture. The millennial focus on sustainability and the seniors’ wish for predictable energy bills may push eastern Colorado farmers, like Texas ranchers, toward solar arrays and wind farms rather than crops.

Very soon, these voter registration, demographic and policy trends will be the tails wagging the party dogs. In less than a decade, both parties have a lot of change to do to survive.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.