Elections always produce surprises, and this year the biggest surprise was the lack of drama in the Governor’s race. After four years of anticipating a cliffhanger, instead the networks called it for Gov. Chris Gregoire before we went to bed on election night, and Dino Rossi conceded the next day. Not surprisingly, myths are already taking hold. In my view, some of these interpretations are wrong, and they overlook a loud distress signal for Republicans & mdash; their plummeting appeal in King County suburbs.
Pollster Stuart Elway has written on Crosscut that his polling indicated the race, "was never close.” Gregoire campaign manager Kelly Evans quickly released a memo claiming that their campaign’s tactics produced the clear victory. In the meantime, pundits talked about the enormous turnout of young, first-time Obama voters and the “blue tide” they created.
The truth is voter turnout was not extraordinary or unusual. Moreover, the Governor’s race was close until events — not tactics — created a blue tide that swept Dino Rossi away. For Republicans, it is important to understand what really happened in this election in order to understand how the Party must change in order to win.
Let’s address turnout first. This year, the turnout of registered voters in Washington was 84.6 percent, up slightly over 2004’s 82.2 percent. Just over 3 million Washingtonians cast ballots, an increase of 6.5 percent over the number of ballots cast in 2004 — an increase, but hardly unusual. By contrast, the number of votes increased by 14.6 percent in 2004 over 2000, and by 21 percent in 1992 over 1988. After all the hype, there wasn’t a massive of flood of new voters in 2008.
There were, of course, new voters, but surprisingly they did not come from King County, where turnout was only slightly higher than in 2004. King County’s share of the statewide vote actually fell from 31.2 percent in 2004 to 30.3 percent in 2008. King County only increased its number of votes by 3.5 percent over four years ago. In contrast, the number of ballots cast increased by 12 percent in Thurston County, by 11in Whatcom, and by 9 in Snohomish, Spokane, and Benton. Clearly, the 2008 turnout numbers show a trend of population growth outside King County, and don’t show a tidal wave of young, urban Obama voters.
All this raises the next logical question: If it wasn’t turnout, why wasn’t the race as close as in 2004? Elway believes Dino Rossi was doomed from the start, adding that his polling indicated that Gov. Gregoire was more “likeable,” that voters didn’t want change in Olympia, and unlike in 2004, that Dino Rossi was seen this time as too conservative. Elway’s final poll showed Gregoire winning comfortably, as happened, but what about his claim that the race was “never close"? Here there is a lot of contradictory evidence.
For months, poll after poll showed the Governor’s race dead even. In September, both private and media polling showed Rossi pulling ahead. In October and down the stretch drive, again both private and public polls showed Gregoire surging, and then pulling comfortably ahead. Every other pollster indicated that the race was close until the final month, so was Elway the only one to get it right? That would be easier to believe if Elway's poll had been right across the board. Elway had Gregoire ahead by 16 percent in August, yet Rossi only “lost" the primary election by 2 percent. Elway’s October 21 poll also showed Doug Sutherland ahead (who eventually lost the Land Commissioner's race by a squeaker), and showed Tim Eyman’s Initiative 985 ahead by 49-33 (it lost by a big margin). Elway says his methods differ from other pollsters, and he often gets different results. His final poll in the Governor’s race was substantially on the mark, but to say the race was never close isn’t supported by the other evidence.
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