When Aspen was Reagan Country: Evolving presidential preferences in Pitkin County, 1960-2020
Aspen-area voters delivered their largest turnout and the widest margin of victory in local history for president-elect Joe Biden last week, with nearly 12,000 Pitkin County residents casting votes and more than 75% of them going to the Democrat, according to the most recent unofficial tally.
The Aspen area has delivered landslide victories for the Democratic candidate for president in the past five elections, when more than two-thirds of the electorate has voted blue. But a look back at election results beyond that recent history demonstrates that Aspen’s electorate has not always been so predictably liberal.
While Aspen may often be caricatured as a cradle of limousine liberalism and high country counterculture, it didn’t begin delivering Democrats landslide margins until the George W. Bush era.
Richard Nixon, for instance, won here twice. Along with 1968, when he won Pitkin County and the presidency, he hammered John F. Kennedy with 58% of the local vote in 1960 when Kennedy ascended to the White House.
Ronald Reagan won Aspen and Pitkin County in both of his elections, topping Jimmy Carter here in 1980 and trouncing Walter Mondale locally in 1984 (that’s the last time that Pitkin County was won by a Republican).
Locals supported the conservative Reagan in those elections even as local politics grew more progressive and liberal, cementing slow-growth and community policing in local governance. Those policies were championed through the Reagan era by Sheriffs Dick Kienast and Bob Braudis and Mayor Bill Stirling, who as the sitting mayor in 1988 was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for Jesse Jackson.
Reagan’s local support, Stirling explained, came during a cultural flashpoint for Aspen as the drop-out ski bum culture of the 1970s gave way to more profit-driven resort elements in the early 1980s. That shift manifested in battles over new hotel developments and created an electorate more open to Reagan’s conservative economic platform.
“That was the clarion call for when Aspen became a commodity,” Stirling, who served as mayor from 1983 to 1991, said. “Prior to that, the rascals from all over the country came here for a way of life, not to make any money off of Aspen. That changed in the 1980s because people were seeing, ‘Wow, I bought this condo two years ago and doubled my money.’”
Reagan won 56% of voted in 1984, over Mondale’s 41%. And in 1980, when Reagan ousted incumbent President Carter, 39% of local voters supported the Gipper while 32.5% pulled the lever for Carter.
Independent candidate John B. Anderson hauled in 27.7% of the local vote in 1980, which is not an anomaly for Aspen-area voters who are regularly wooed by third-party candidates: Ralph Nader in 1996 (5.2%) and 2000 (13%); H. Ross Perot in 1992 (25.5%) and 1996 (7.6%); and Eugene McCarthy in 1976 (5.5%). Even segregationist George Wallace earned more than 6% of the local vote in 1968, when the county overwhelmingly supported Nixon over the Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
Municipal elections in Aspen play out without party distinctions, observers noted, which encourages people to vote on the issues rather than on a party line. That habit perhaps extends to national politics as well, with locals willing to cast ballots for fringe candidates.
“By registration, more people are independents here and in lifestyle a lot of people are Libertarian or libertine,” said Aspen-based political consultant Mick Ireland, the former Aspen mayor and Pitkin County commissioner. “We do have an independent streak. Bottom line, a lot of people here don’t want to be labeled.”
Since 2000, when many blamed Democrat Al Gore’s defeat on liberal support for Nader, third-party candidates have gained less traction here. None broke 1% in last week’s election, when Libertarian Jo Jorgenson won 92 total votes and pop star Kanye West earned 22.
Voter turnout has risen consistently since Aspen’s rebirth as a ski resort in the 1940s.
But the watershed election was 1972, when turnout more than doubled over 1968 and when Aspen’s post-hippie political transformation took hold. That year, fueled by the influx of young ski bums and the voter registration efforts of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 “Freak Power” campaign, Freak Power alumni Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman won election as county commissioners and the local vote went to George McGovern over Nixon.
“It’s one thing to vote nationally against Nixon but it’s another to take action to control the local political environment,” said Daniel Joseph Watkins, author of a book on Thompson’s campaign and co-director of the new documentary “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb.” “The credit for that engagement of the youth vote goes to the Freak Power movement.”
Four years earlier Nixon had won 56% of the local vote, which totaled 1,999. In 1972, the electorate was completely transformed as 4,595 total locals cast ballots, delivering 55% to McGovern, who lost every state in the Union except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia on his anti-Vietnam War platform.
“Hunter Thompson and Joe Edwards and that group, they registered tons of people and that swung Aspen from being this conservative ranching and tourism community to this young, liberal place,” said Lisa Hancock, vice president and curator of the Aspen Historical Society. “Since the Hunter Thompson era, people have been very engaged.”
McGovern won only two counties in Colorado (Costilla, which has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election since 1928, was the other). It might surprise some locals to learn that in 2020 Pitkin County is actually not the biggest blue landslide county in Colorado. That distinction belongs to Denver County’s 82% vote for Biden; Boulder and San Miguel counties also topped Pitkin’s 75% for Biden.
After the Reagan era, presidential votes have gone to Democrats in Pitkin County but by relatively small margins from 1988 to 2000. There were no landslides through those contests, when the largest vote went to Bill Clinton in 1996 with 56.5%.
It’s only since 2004 — the last time a Republican presidential candidate won Colorado — that the results in Pitkin County have been so lopsided in favor of the Dems. That year, Pitkin County handed John Kerry 68.4% of the vote riding an anti-Bush and anti-Iraq War local sentiment.
Voter turnout has gone up every four years here since 2000, except in 2012 when it ticked down slightly from the Obama boost of 2008, and went above 10,000 for the first time in 2016. It broke 11,000 this year. Margins for Democrats have grown along with that turnout growth.
Ireland noted that, while the Freak Power movement made Aspen a leftist stronghold and progressive outpost in the early 1970s, Pitkin County is not unique among mountain communities in turning overwhelmingly blue in the 21st century. Current voting trends in Aspen, he argued, are less about a local movement than about national culture shifts.
Recent decades, Ireland pointed out, have seen more counties across the U.S. turn more homogeneously red or blue in voting patterns. Mountain towns across the West have nearly all become landslide Democratic territory since the George W. Bush era. Not so long ago, Republican strongholds remained like Teton County, Wyoming (home to Jackson Hole) and Blaine County, Idaho (home to Sun Valley), but over the last two election cycles those too have turned into reliably blue landslide counties.
Ireland noted that predominantly white and highly educated populaces like Aspen’s are more likely to vote Democratic than they were a generation ago, and that other local factors put a thumb on the scale for Democrats. The county’s move into deep blue territory, Ireland suggested, is turbo-charged by people voting on environmental issues and climate change, which in ski country are also business issues that push pro-business voters toward Democratic tickets.
“Democrats align with local interest in protecting the environment, which here is an economic interest as well as a moral interest,” Ireland said.
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