Why the governor's race never was close

A pollster explains how conventional framing of the campaign missed the real dynamics. Gov. Chris Gregoire was thought more "likeable," and the tax revolt didn't impress voters outside the Republican base. Add a "blue tide," and Dino Rossi was toast.
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Gov. Chris Gregoire, left, and GOP challenger Dino Rossi endured close races in 2008 and, especially, 2004. (KOMO-TV)

A pollster explains how conventional framing of the campaign missed the real dynamics. Gov. Chris Gregoire was thought more "likeable," and the tax revolt didn't impress voters outside the Republican base. Add a "blue tide," and Dino Rossi was toast.

The Washington governor's race came to a mercifully quick end this year, leaving pundits and reporters, who had talked all year about what a close race this was, stunned and bewildered. They shouldn't be. It never was going to be a close race.

Communications professionals today talk about "frames" — the lens of expectation through which we view and interpret events. The expectation for the race between Democratic incumbent Gov. Chris Gregoire and Republican challenger Dino Rossi was set four years ago. That 133-vote election provided a powerful frame through which this race was viewed all year. "Everyone" expected it to be close, so that is how events and information were interpreted.

Supporting evidence for this conventional wisdom, however sketchy, anecdotal, or self-serving, fed the theory while conflicting evidence was largely ignored. Besides, close races are so much more exciting. Instead, let's review some evidence from outside the frame to which we might have paid more attention.


Rossi entered the 2008 race talking about the need for change, attempting to catch the wave rolling across the country. He also talked about burdensome state taxes and profligate spending of the past four years. He was winning all year among voters who were passionate about those issues, but there were not enough of such people.

On the policy level, voters have been generally satisfied the functioning of state government on Gregoire's watch. As the campaign got under way, voter sentiment about state taxes was about where it usually is — taxes are somewhat high, but not onerous. There was some downturn in the belief that state tax dollars are well spent, and the ratings for effectiveness were slightly lower. But state government was getting improved ratings for accountability and steady ratings for efficiency. Again, not stellar but certainly not an unusual level of dissatisfaction.

Taxes are one thing; what is done with the money is another matter. Gregoire and Rossi split the electorate when it came to state spending and budget priorities. The constituency for Gregoire's "investment in the future" theme was just as large as the constituency for Rossi's charge of overspending.

What about a more personal level, job performance? Gregoire started the year with positive ratings. Though not stellar, her positive ratings rose above the 50 percent mark in January 2007 and have stayed there ever since. Her ratings in June of this year were comparable to Gary Locke's in June of his re-election year.

To add this up: In January, Gregoire led Dino Rossi 48-35 in the first head-to-head match up in The Elway Poll. Outside the Republican base, there was no widespread desire to throw her out.

The blue tide

One of the changes Rossi had in mind was changing one-party control of state government and the 24-year hold of the governor's mansion by Democrats. Just over half of our sample said they favor dividing state government between the two parties. At the same time, Democrat party identification went up. Divided government in the abstract was not as important as voting against real-life Republicans, especially given President Bush's unpopularity.

A "blue tide" started to rise in Washington long before Barack Obama got the nomination. Identification with the Democratic Party had been rising for the past eight years. Bush was good for Democratic unity, and Obama's candidacy accelerated a trend.

The average party identification in our Elway Poll samples over the three months leading up to the election was 43 percent Democrat to 29 percent Republican. In those same three months in 2000, it was Democrats by only 32-31. This means that about one quarter of Washington independents decided they are Democrats over the past eight years. Also, by the time Washington started voting, 46 percent of our sample was telling us they would register as Democrats if they had to register by party.


Given the blue tide, Rossi understandably tried to downplay his Republican ties, which led to lots of talk about Obama/Rossi voters. They turned out to be like Sasquatch — a powerful myth, a couple of sightings, but no scientific evidence. Obama/Rossi voters comprised 4 percent of our October sample, but McCain/Gregoire voters comprised 3 percent.

Part of the Rossi strategy was to blur the party label by stating on the ballot that he "prefers the GOP party." Not a bad idea this year, and we found that 25 percent of voters did not know what "GOP" means. By the end of the campaign, however, thanks largely to Gregoire's advertising tying Rossi with Bush, nine of 10 knew Rossi was a Republican.

Rossi the conservative

The Gregoire camp believes Rossi got a pass in 2004 on his true colors. They set out to paint him as more conservative than his genial personality indicates, and they succeeded. By the end of the campaign, Rossi was seen as conservative by two-thirds of voters. Gregoire was seen by voters as moderate to liberal — the place to be in Washington. Gregoire also had an edge among voters who cared most about "values."


Another strong frame for this match-up was "likability." Reporters have the idea that Rossi is much more likable than Gregoire. He is affable and smooth. She is sharp, angular, lawyer-like. We polled on this a couple of times with the same result: Gregoire won on likability. Likability was seen as a relative advantage for her over Rossi among persuadable voters in September. Her "personal characteristics and qualities" were rated higher than his in October. Maybe voters define likability differently than the insiders; and Gregoire's campaign helped itself by portraying her as warm and mom-like.

She also won on among those who cared most about the candidate's experience and record, which was rated as much more important than personal qualities and characteristics.

Negative ads

The conventional wisdom depicted this campaign as nasty and mutually nullifying. As the previous points indicate, however, Gregoire appears to have the advantage here as well. Gregoire had a 13-point advantage among voters who saw ads from both campaigns. Among those who said they saw no ads (who are these people?), her advantage was 9 points in our October poll. The difference is not statistically significant, but it is politically significant.

The debates also helped Gregoire, even more than the ad wars. Among those who saw at least one debate, Gregoire led 57-36. Among those who saw no debates, she led by only 47-41.

Bottom line

Any election is largely a referendum on the incumbent. Beating an incumbent is almost always difficult. The voters must be dissatisfied with the current office holder and the challenger must win the campaign. Neither of these conditions took place this year.


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About the Authors & Contributors

H. Stuart Elway

H. Stuart Elway

H. Stuart Elway has been conducting public opinion research since 1975. He directs the Crosscut/Elway Poll.