In the race to be Colorado’s next governor, who’s got your dinner party invite: Polis or Stapleton?

9 min. read
Colorado gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton (left) and Jared Polis. (Alyson McClaran and Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Gearing up for a general election race between Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, one question worth asking is which one of these guys is more likable.

If you can’t really answer that yet, consider a question Metropolitan State University of Denver political science professor Robert R. Preuhs said can be a good way to gauge likability.

“A traditional measure of likability is to ask people if you would like to have them over for dinner, or have a beer with at home,” Preuhs said. “I think both of these candidates are fairly even in this response.”

So, take another second to consider: Would you rather funnel a Coors Light with Polis or nurse a Crooked Stave with Stapleton?

Preuhs said, as a general rule, the two candidates will likely begin rolling out more moderate stances as the general election approaches, meaning if you haven’t already made up your mind, both of these candidates will be spending the next few months trying to convince you why you should grab a drink with them (or invite them for dinner, if things are getting serious).

Likability will probably be a bigger factor for unaffiliated voters, who Preuhs said might use it to decide if they don’t see major differences in policy — though Preuhs admits this may not be an issue between polar opposites like Polis and Stapleton.

And likability only goes so far; at some point, people are just going to vote for their party's candidate.

"The general argument that Jared Polis is too liberal, or Stapleton too closely tied with Trump, those are already built in," Preuhs said. "Voters that are going to respond to that are already going to vote Republican or Democrat depending on their positions right now."

Still, voters on the fence between the two major-party candidates could be persuaded by likability.

“These are both high-quality candidates, and so neither of them have huge … there’s no significant negatives attached to them," Preuhs said, though he warns we'll see more negative ads closer to election day (or maybe sooner). "That likability aspect will be even more marginal because they're fairly evenly matched in that.”

With the primary election over, both Polis and Stapleton are starting fresh with new voters. But do either of them face a likability ceiling?

Based on conversations with political strategists, the answer is probably not.

Former Colorado Republican party chairman Dick Wadhams said both of them have a clean slate at this point, as they will get a chance to present their positions to a new, general election audience — though he says this doesn’t mean they won’t be held accountable for previous positions or statements.

But Polis was the candidate many strategists name-checked as having the most potential challenges.

“I can say, we are on a turf that’s never been trodden before in terms of Polis,” Wadhams said, adding that Polis has gone out of his way to position himself “way to the left of John Hickenlooper.”

Kelly Maher, executive director at the conservative nonprofit organization Compass Colorado, said likability always matters in political races and that for Polis, this was made clear by his spending.

“I think that Jared Polis has a lot of likability issues, as shown by the fact that he had to spend $12 million to cover those up,” Maher said. “This is the second time he actually purchased himself a primary.”

Plus, Blueprint Strategies co-founder and Republican campaign consultant Cinamon Watson points out, Polis is easy to pigeonhole. (And it’s something Polis is fully aware of.)

“I think Jared Polis, conversely, carries the moniker of 'Boulder liberal,'” Watson said. “I don’t think he’s proven himself to be able to reach out to voters across the state. His base hasn’t been that large.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis speaks to Governor John Hickenlooper before a unity rally backing him on the Capitol steps, June 29, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The 2nd Congressional District Polis represents includes a mixture of urban and rural counties, but it’s been a blue seat since the mid-1970s. Yet his continual call for universal healthcare, an option that was resoundingly defeated by Colorado voters in 2016, is one way Watson said Polis will make himself an unlikable candidate.

Adams County-based Democratic consultant Cristina Aguilar mentioned the calls for universal healthcare too, adding that this idea, coupled with calls for universal pre-K, “could be potentially difficult to win over moderate” voters.

“Polis has really made no qualms about really being out there on state-funded universal pre-K and single-payer healthcare,” Aguilar said.

It's also an issue of composure, as Democratic analyst and consultant Steve Welchert pointed out: “He can be awkward. And he knows that. He’s got a long way to find a way to solve that problem.”

In spite of this or maybe because of this, he added, Polis appeared more comfortable than Stapleton during TV appearances.

Here’s one spot where Polis could have an advantage: More Democrats voted in the primary than Republicans, and a majority of unaffiliated candidates participating in this year’s primary voted in the Democratic primary.

“I think the base is really motivated,” Aguilar said, noting the “liberal resistance” prompted in the Trump Era.

Stapleton, meanwhile, will face constant scrutiny for how much he aligns himself with Trump. His likability could depend on how he responds to Trump's policies instead of his personality. Wadhams said defending Trump's tax plans, which Stapleton supported and Polis opposed, is an example of how things could be beneficial for him since Wadhams believes most Coloradans supported the president’s tax plan.

He's also faced criticism from his former primary opponents for not participating in enough forums and debates.

Aguilar said Stapleton has been a writing-his-own-rules candidate leading up to the primary. She referenced him not publicly naming his lieutenant governor pick this week after Polis named his, missing out on debates and dodging reporters as examples of his approach.

Welchert said most people will forget about that once the election rolls around, but that’s not to say Stapleton won’t need some fine-tuning before that date. He said Stapleton needs some work before he appears more comfortable in his own skin during public appearances.

“He’s known for having a bit of a temper,” Welchert said. Stapleton did well in the debates he appeared in, but he got a sense Stapleton was too well-scripted, too rigid. “(He) stayed on message but it came across as a guy just spitting out talking points.”

Stapleton could benefit from rolling up his sleeves and loosening his necktie to speak to people, “in a more real way,” Welchert said.

Aguilar said Stapleton's approach could end up backfiring since it could seem like he’s not “participating in the full democratic process.” She added that Stapleton's decision to align himself more closely with Trump’s policies, like stopping sanctuary cities, "could go either way."

“Does the base of Republicans and the independent electors — how does that fit for them? … That fundamental question about where independents go will continue to be one of the most important measures to be watching," Aguilar said.

Walker Stapleton watches results roll in with his family during his primary election watch party, June 26, 2018. (Alyson McClaran/For Denverite)

Maher said she thinks it wasn't an issue that Stapleton hasn’t announced his running mate yet — but she said Polis announcing his running mate in a holiday week was like dumping bad news on 4 p.m. on a Friday. She believes Stapleton will make an announcement when it can be “a boon to the campaign.”

Other potential issues affecting Stapleton's likability: He was called out by Colorado television stations for making some false statements about his support of Trump’s tax plan and his status as a Colorado native.

Watson said these things won’t be an issue, since Stapleton has traveled the state as treasurer and people “know him, and I think that’s the whole point, they’ve come to trust him.”

She continued: "I think, sure, that the Democrats and opponents are going to seize something like that, it’s part of politics. But I think over the last eight years, that Coloradans have gotten to know him as state treasurer."

We have some sense of each candidate's likeability.

We got our first glimpse at candidate likability in a post-primary poll commissioned by the Colorado Democratic Party and released three days after the June 26 election. The survey polled 608 Colorado voters on June 27 and June 28 and showed Polis leading Stapleton 46 percent to 38 percent overall.

While Democrats were quick to point out Polis’ lead, the results — and again, this was a poll commissioned by Dems — showed both candidates with so-so unfavorable ratings. Polis pulled in 35 percent favorable ratings, compared to 33 percent unfavorable and 32 percent not sure. Stapleton got a 27 percent favorable rating, compared to 42 percent unfavorable and 31 percent not sure.

Pollster David Flaherty, of the Republican-leaning polling firm Magellan Strategies, has been putting out the most consistent and reliable polls for Colorado races this political season. He conducted polling for the governor’s race for likely Republican and Democratic voters, and his results ultimately ended up more or less predicting who most voters ended up supporting last month.

The polling included image ratings, and both Polis and Stapleton scored highly in these categories. The last primary poll Magellan released in June showed Polis with a 56 percent favorability rating among likely Dem primary voters and Stapleton with a 51 percent favorability rating among likely GOP primary voters.

Yet his past polling won’t be as relevant now. Flaherty warns that primary and general election voters represent “two dramatically different populations.” He also pointed that out two big primary election topics for Republicans were immigration and sanctuary cities. It’s the kind of thing that was crucial for primary voters but probably won’t get much play in the general election.

“Throw those out. They don’t mean a damn thing,” Flaherty said about his previous poll figures. “They are two different worlds.”

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify Maher's comments on Stapleton announcing his running mate. 

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