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Poll Analysis
May 5, 2003

Down Economy Vaults Businessman into Denver Mayoral Lead
Analysis by Floyd Ciruli

John Hickenlooper, local restaurant and bar owner in his first run for office, took a surprisingly strong lead in the Denver Post/9News poll conducted 13 days before the May 6 general election.

Vote for Mayor of Denver
Total Already
Leaners Commited
plus leaners
John Hickenlooper 27% 30% 10% 29%
Don Mares 17% 17% 6% 19%
Ari Zavares 11% 15% 2% 12%
Penfield Tate 8% 5% 2% 8%
Susan Casey 5% 3% 3% 6%
Elizabeth Schlosser 2% 1% -- 2%
Phl Perington .03% -- -- 1%
Don't know/refused 30% 29% 77% 23%
Base 500 104 125 500
Ciruli Associates, N500, 203

Question: As I mentioned earlier, on May 6 there will be an election for Denver’s mayor. After I read the following list of candidates, please tell me, if you had to vote today, who you would vote for.

Hickenlooper received 29 percent of the vote in the April 21 to April 23 poll including undecided voters asked who they were leaning toward. In second place was auditor Don Mares with 19 percent. Former front-runner Ari Zavaras dropped to third, garnering 12 percent of the vote. Penfield Tate was the only other candidate within striking distance of second place with 8 percent. Nearly a quarter of the electorate (23%) remained uncommitted to a candidate.

Twenty-one percent of voters interviewed had already cast ballots. Hickenlooper won 30 percent of the early votes; Mares and Zavaras were in a near tie for second (17% and 15%, respectively).

The Denver Post/9KUSA mayoral survey of 500 likely voters was conducted by Ciruli Associates from April 21 to 23, 2003 (statistical range of accuracy ±4.4 percentage points).

John Hickenlooper’s support generally spanned the city with slight upticks in the central (33%) and southwestern (34%) areas. Don Mares’ voters were concentrated in his home area of northwest Denver (33%) with a quarter of Southeast Denver voters (24%) in his camp. Penfield Tate was in second place (15%) in the northeast (location of his former senate seat) and the central region (12%). Zavaras came in second in southwest but was in third or fourth in all other regions.

Fifth place candidate Susan Casey (not shown in the chart above) came in third (11%) in the central area, which incorporates much of her former city council district (Washington Park area) but fifth in the other areas of the city (except southeast where she came in fourth ahead of Tate with 4 percent of the vote).

Along with geographic patterns each candidate had some particular strongholds among the electorate.

Demographic Background of Supporters
College grad 38% Hispanic 44% SW 22% Black 29% Central 11%
Republican 35% NW 33% Seniors 17% NE 15% Moderate 8%
SE 34% City worker 28% Conservative 16% Liberal 13% Post grad 7%
Central 32% Union 28% Hispanic 16% Central 12% Female 6%
White 32% SW 24% Republican 16% Post grad 12% 34 or less 6%
Liberal 30% Democrat 23% Union 15% 55-64 12%
Unaffiliated 30% Liberal 21%
Ciruli Associates, N500, 203

Mares did well among Hispanic voters, union, city employee households and Democrats. Tate was the strongest candidate among Black voters. Zavaras did better among seniors, Republicans, Hispanics and union voters. Hickenlooper’s support mixed the opposites of Republican and liberal voters.

Mood of the Electorate and Major Issues
The down economy and citywide budget crisis has put Denver voters in a bad mood. Nearly half the voters (49%) said the economy was getting worse. Only 48 percent believed the city was moving in the right direction and 36 percent said it was off track. Even during the economic recession of 1986 prior to Mayor Federico Peña’s difficult re-election, 52 percent of Denver voters believed the city was on the right track.

Not surprisingly, Denver voters cited the economy and jobs as the most important issues in the election. Eighteen percent of voters placed the city’s financial shortfall and budget crisis as the second most important issue.

Denver’s school system (8%) and the drought (6%) rounded out the top four election issues.

Candidates and the Issues
Among the top five candidates, Susan Casey’s voters appeared most concerned about the economy with Tate’s and Hickenlooper’s voters closely following.

Hickenlooper and Casey voters most often mentioned city budget and fiscal problems. Penfield Tate voters lead on education and Ari Zavaras on the drought and water.

Summary of How Each Candidates’ Voters Rated the Top Issues
Issue Total Casey Hickenlooper Mares Tate Zavaras
Jobs/economy 23% 35% 30% 19% 31% 16%
Budget/fiscal problem 18% 22% 25% 20% 15% 11%
Education/poor schools 8% 9% 6% 11% 15% 9%
Water/drought 6% 4% 4% 6% -- 11%
Ciruli Associates, N500, 203

Business experience was tied with government experience and knowledge of Denver as the main criterion in voters’ choice of candidates.

Voters were closely divided between being familiar with a candidate (12%) and wanting new blood and a non-politician (11%). Also, 7 percent of voters chose their candidate for providing new or good ideas. Four percent said advertising was their reason for support.

Top Reasons Voting for Candidate
Business experience 16%
Experience/know Denver 16%
Familiarity 12%
New blook/not a politician 11%
Best candidate 9%
Like him/her 8%
New/good ideas 7%
Like his ads 4%
Ciruli Associates, N500, 203

Not surprisingly, business experience was the top reason cited by Hickenlooper voters for their support. He also was seen as the non-political candidate with new ideas. Seven percent of his voters cited his ads as the reason for support.

Mares’ voters most often said they were familiar with him, his job as auditor and liked his knowledge of Denver.

Most of Zavaras’ support came from his long record in local and state government. His voters cited his experience, familiarity and the fact that they just like him.

Tate won votes because of his experience and from people familiar with him. His views on schools also attracted support.

Casey, in last place among the major candidates, was described as having new ideas and high ethics. She had more women voters than men (78% women to 22% men) and many said it would be good to have a woman mayor.

Hickenlooper (29%) . Mares (19%) . Zavaras (12%)
Business Experience 39% Familiarity 19% Experience 34%
New blood/not a politician 25% Good auditor 15% Familiarity 16%
Best candidate 9% Experience 11% Best candidate 14%
Like Hickenlooper 7% Like Mares 10% Leader 7%
Like his ads 7% Knows Denver 6% Like Zavaras 7%
New/good ideas 7% Best candidate 5% Effective 6%
Knows Denver 5% Honest/ethics 5% Like his ads 6%
Don't know 5% Pro Union 5% Don't know 2%
Don't know 4%
Base 135 Base 85 Base 55

Tate (8%) . Casey (6%)
Familiarity 28% New/good ideas 26%
Best candidate 10% Experience 21%
Views on schools 10% Honest/ethics 17%
Experience 8% Woman would be good 13%
Good judgment 8% Best candidate 9%
Like Tate 8% Effective 9%
Effective 5% Good judgment 9%
Leader 5% Like Casey 9%
New/good ideas 5% Don't know --
Don't know 8%
Base 39 Base 23

Campaign Topics
Mayoral candidates made a number of proposals to address the economy, manage the fiscal crisis and deal with the drought.

Denver voters are huge advocates for light rail, which addresses their concerns about congestion and excessive growth. Candidates also presented it as an urban planning tool and economic stimulus.

However, they are not at all supportive of subsidizing a new convention hotel. Most of the candidates do support it and claim it is needed and that taxpayer liability is very limited. For a few candidates, it is seen as a low priority project but too late to stop.

Summary of Proposals
Good ideas
Build additional light rail
Reduce the cost of parking meters downtown
If the drought worsens, ban all outdoor watering this summer except for trees
Stop giving city workers an automatic annual pay raise of 5 percent
Allow collective bargaining for non-safety city workers
Charge for trash pick-up to help balance the budget
Subsidize the construction of new convention hotel downtown
Ciruli Associates, N500, 2003

When it comes to city fees and charges, voters were in a resistant mood. More than three quarters of voters want parking meters reduced. And 56 percent said charging for trash pick-up was a bad idea. But voters were willing to accept a ban on outdoor watering except for trees if the drought worsens. A majority of voters favored stopping automatic pay raises for city employees. But a third had no view on allowing collective bargaining for non-safety city employees. By 39 percent to 29 percent, more voters thought it was a good idea than bad.

Awareness of Candidates
After five months of campaigning, four candidates out of seven were still not known by more than half the Denver electorate. It is not unusual that voters are unfamiliar with city council members and legislators outside their districts but it is still a shock for candidates after having been in the paper repeatedly to be mostly unknown to voters. Two weeks before the election, Tate, Casey, Schlosser and Perington were still struggling for name identification.

Comporting with voter preferences, Hickenlooper and Mares had the highest favorable and lowest unfavorable ratings. Ari Zavaras had a 37 percent favorable and a 32 percent unfavorable rating. His highly negative score reflected the criticism of his tenure as manager of safety during the spy files controversies, his disability payments and college-dropout controversy. Zavaras was also identified as the Republican candidate and as a police advocate, positions that caused some Democrats concern (36% unfavorable rating from Democrats vs. 25% from Republicans).

Summary Ratings of Candidates/Leaders
Favorable Unfavorable Don't know/
no opinion
Wellington Webb 58% 30% 11%
John Hickenlooper 51% 10% 40%
Bill Owens 51% 36% 13%
Federico Peña 51% 30% 20%
Don Mares 48% 12% 40%
Ari Zavaras 37% 32% 30%
Penfield Tate 30% 9% 61%
Susan Casey 28% 16% 55%
Elizabeth Schlosser 18% 14% 69%
Phil Perington 10% 14% 75%
Ciruli Associates, N500, 203

Although Mayor Webb received the top rating (58%) among the candidates and politicians listed, it was well below the 70 percent rating Denver voters gave him last July. Economic concerns and the fiscal crisis are likely culprits in Mayor Webb’s lower favorable rating. In addition, recent charges of over-spending for political appointees have likely had a negative impact. Rating Denver’s Municipal Organizations

Another indication of Webb’s and Zavaras’ problems were the low performance ratings that voters gave key institutions associated with the two. The Denver Police Department was given a 54 percent “excellent” or “good” performance rating but a 41 percent fair or poor rating. The mayor’s office received a higher “fair” or “poor” performance score (50%) than excellent or good (44%). Among the approximately three-quarters of the voters that rated the city council, more voters gave it a low performance rating (48%) than high (30%).

Summary Ratings of Organizations
Fair/Poor Don't know
Denver Public Library 81% 7% 12%
Denver Parks & Recreation 64% 28% 8%
Denver Police Department 55% 41% 4%
Denver Water 54% 38% 8%
Denver Health 51% 24% 26%
Denver Mayor's Office 44% 50% 7%
Denver City Council 30% 48% 22%
Parking Management 16% 60% 24%
Career Service Authority 13% 26% 61%
Ciruli Associates, N500, 203

Strength of Support
When three key indicators of commitment to a candidate are combined into an index, Don Mares and John Hickenlooper led with 71 and 69 percent respectively in commitment of vote to support a candidate. Ari Zavaras faced the greatest weakness in voter resolve (51%).

Committed Voter Index
Candidate Total
Don Mares 71%
John Hickenlooper 69%
Penfield Tate 59%
Susan Casey 58%
Ari Zavaras 51%
Ciruli Associates, N200

Certainty to vote (79% of sample said they were certain), level of interest in the race (50% of sample said they were very interested in race) and firmness of choice (53% said choice was firm) comprise the components for the index.

The 2003 mayor’s race set fundraising records in Denver. The final pre-election campaign contribution report showed nearly
$3.7 million was raised by the candidates (the final amount will top
$4 million). Zavaras exceeded and Hickenlooper was closing in on the million-dollar mark.

Record fundraising was a factor of recent trends and the uniqueness of this race. Denver candidates must buy regional radio and TV advertising time even though they only need to communicate with a quarter of the region’s voters.

But the reason this race exceeded so dramatically the $1.1 million previous record in the 1987 Bain vs. Peña race is the large number of strong candidates with significant fundraising bases. In addition, Zavaras having collected a record of $500,000 in 2002 dramatically raised the bar for everyone else.

Mayoral Polls
A series of polls have been reported that initially placed Ari Zavaras in the front-runner position largely on the basis of a higher profile, but he quickly dropped from 19 percent to 12 percent. Mares and Tate maintained early poll levels of 20 percent for Mares and 10 percent for Tate. Mares did not appear to build on his base during the last month of campaigning but has support from organized labor. Tate attempted a late surge with an attack on Mares and a large TV advertising buy. Zavaras had the benefit of some early voting and seniors and Republicans who would be important in a low turnout race. Casey was not able to generate much support.

Denver Post
Casey -- 5% 9% 6% 6%
Hickenlooper -- 14% 15% 33% 29%
Mares 5% 24% 15% 20% 19%
Perington -- 1% 1% 2% 1%
Schlosser 1% 3% 1% 2% 2%
Tate 3% 12% 6% 8% 8%
Zavaras 6% 19% 17% 10% 12%
Don't know/refused
*Also other, none
80% 22% 36%* 12% 23%
No. of Respondents 250 400 962 300 500
Ciruli Associates, N500, 203

Denver Mayoral Turnout
Voter turnout in Denver mayoral elections has declined steadily since the exceptional election of 1983 when 65 percent of voters turned out. The large number of open seats on the ballot was initially thought to inspire at least a third of voters to show up, but late estimates place the number of voters at 100,000 or about 30 percent of 335,000 registered voters. Half that amount, 50,678 could vote absentee, although as of May 5 only 35,938 ballots had been received.

History of Surprise
Denver mayoral elections have a history of producing surprise results and late changes. In 1991, it wasn’t until the second-to-last published poll on May 16 prior to the May 21 general election that Wellington Webb inched ahead of Don Bain and went on to win second place by 3,000 votes. Webb won handily against Norm Early in the runoff.

Mary DeGroot’s final momentum in 1995 allowed her to beat incumbent mayor Wellington Webb by 97 votes in the May 2nd general election (she lost the runoff). Her movement began the last two weeks of the runoff, when she climbed from 27 percent in the last published poll to 42 percent on election day.

Webb and DeGroot were come-from-behind dark horses that were put in the runoff by Denver voters who often produce surprises in their mayor’s races.

Winners of first-round general elections have often lost the runoff. Peña, running for re-election in 1987, came in second to Republican lawyer Don Bain, but won in the runoff by 3,000 votes. More spectacularly, Webb moved in his 1991 race from 30 percent in the general election to a 58 percent victory in the runoff. And, in 1995, City Councilwoman Mary DeGroot won the general election against Webb but lost the runoff by more than 10,000 votes.


  • The report was prepared by Floyd Ciruli who has polled and commented on Denver mayoral elections since 1983.

  • The telephone survey was conducted by Ciruli Associates from April 21 to April 23, 2003. A total of 500 Denver residents who are adult registered voters likely to vote in the May 6, 2003 general city election were interviewed. Selection was from a random sample of registered Denver voters who are on the active voter files. Respondents were screened to identify likely voters in the May election.

  • Statistical range of accuracy in 19 out of 20 cases is ±4.4 percentage points for a sample size of 500. Sample tolerances for subgroups are larger. For example, the confidence interval for a subgroup of 200 respondents is ±6.9 percentage points. Due to rounding, not all totals equal 100 percent. Survey results can be affected by other factors such as question wording and order.

  • Ciruli Associates is a non-partisan research, communications and public policy management firm providing consulting services to Colorado and national organizations since 1976.


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