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The real reason Dino Rossi lost

Gov. Chris Gregoire, left, and GOP challenger Dino Rossi debate on Sept. 21, 2008.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, left, and GOP challenger Dino Rossi endured close races in 2008 and, especially, 2004. (KOMO-TV)

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.

Gov. Gregoire’s campaign certainly thought the race was close. Evans says in her memo that, “four weeks before the election, we were losing public school parents by 11 points; two weeks prior, we were winning by a point. Same is true for union households, a move from +12 to +27 in just three weeks.” This matches all the other evidence that Rossi was ahead in September before a massive shift took place in October. Evans gives the Gregoire campaign much of the credit for turning the race around, claiming that it was a combination of their advertising, debate performances, ground game, and negative ads boomeranging on Rossi.

Gov. Gregoire and the Democrats ran an excellent campaign, especially in October. But so did Rossi and the Republicans. (Disclosure moment: I volunteered time in the Rossi campaign, particularly on issue development.) Both sides spent millions on advertising; both sides organized massive voter identification and get out the vote efforts. The campaigns began early, and after months of unrelenting advertising and news coverage, Dino Rossi was ahead in late September. Was the Gregoire campaign that much better than the Rossi campaign in October? Did the negative ads launched by both sides bounce back only on Rossi? Not likely.

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked, What causes a government to lose support? He answered, “Events, dear boy. Events.” Events drive politics, and events gave Gregoire her comfortable margin of reelection.

It was not a good year to be a Republican candidate. President Bush was wildly unpopular, and the Republican brand was damaged. The nomination of “maverick” John McCain, however, raised hopes. Most importantly, Republicans believed that some unique dynamics in the governor’s race and the strength of Rossi’s candidacy would allow him to rise above the expected Democratic tide.

As the race turned for home after Labor Day those hopes still appeared justified. A Rasmussen Poll conducted on September 10 showed Rossi comfortably ahead, 52-46. The Rossi campaign’s polling at the same time showed roughly the same margin. Evans’ memo indicates that the Gregoire campaign’s polling also showed Rossi ahead. The Rasmussen Poll had McCain trailing by only 2 percent in Washington. Then “events” took over. Five days later, Lehman Brothers declared the largest bankruptcy in American history and the credit crisis was upon us, fundamentally changing the 2008 campaign. McCain began dropping and Rossi dropped with him, though a poll done by the Rossi campaign the last weekend in September showed a small Rossi lead.

Then, between October 1st and October 10 the Dow dropped 2,380 points. The credit crisis became a market crisis. What had been an interesting news story became very personal as voters watched their retirement funds melt away, along with the equity in their homes. Stock prices, like gas prices, are an economic statistic that moves public opinion. Very soon, Rossi’s tracking poll numbers fell through the floor, and a small lead became a significant deficit.

From October 10 to October 14, the market rallied, rising 859 points, back above 9,000. Rossi’s numbers improved as well. SurveyUSA at the time showed Gregoire ahead by only 1%, and Rossi’s tracking polls also showed the race very close. On October 15th the Dow dropped 733 points. The Elway Poll, taken over the next three days, showed Gregoire ahead by 12 percent.

Over the final two weeks the markets rose, fell, and rose again, but psychologically the damage was done. Over the final two weeks, four consecutive public polls showed Gregoire with a lead of 2 points. Reportedly, both campaigns’ tracking polls also showed Gregoire slightly ahead. The Rossi campaign held out hope that the undecideds would break Republican, as they did in 2004. Instead, across the country the opposite happened. Obama’s lead widened, as did Gregoire’s. The final SurveyUSA poll showed Gregoire winning 52-46 — nearly dead on.

It’s hard not to conclude that John McCain and Dino Rossi were done in by the last calamity of the Bush second term. A close national race was turned into a rout, and Rossi’s 6-point September lead turned into a 6-point November loss. In my view, Team Rossi ran a very strong campaign, both on the ground and on the airwaves. They did everything they could to focus on the economy and the state’s looming budget deficit. They talked about the right issues. But in the end they weren’t able to rise far enough above the national tide. In 2004, George W. Bush lost Washington State by 7 percent. In 2008, McCain lost here by 17 percent. Rossi once again ran ahead of the national ticket, but the hill this time was too steep.

Rossi’s numbers were down all across the state, but it is the results in King County that Republicans must focus on. John McCain received an incredible 28 percent of the vote in King County. Rossi received 36 percent, down from 40 percent in 2004. In 2004, Rossi lost King County by 18 percent; this time he lost by 28 percent — the biggest change of any of the large counties. Republicans will never elect a Governor or U.S. Senator, or regain legislative majorities in Olympia, if this trend in King County continues.

It wasn’t new voters that made this difference; it was a continuation of the long-term erosion of Republican support among suburbanites. This key shift is the most important factor Republicans must address going forward.

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