Inside Politics: Governor's race is a tossup

Undervoting by Republicans in the primary indicates that the Inslee-McKenna race is a dead heat.
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Rob McKenna

Undervoting by Republicans in the primary indicates that the Inslee-McKenna race is a dead heat.

A week ago  I called the Governor’s race a toss-up, but I also said that based on the results in the primary election, and the most recent available public polling, Democrat Jay Inslee appeared to have “a slight advantage.” Upon further review I want to  amend that statement. Based on all the available evidence this race is dead even.

Why the change in punditry?

First, I have learned of private polling done since the primary that shows the race even closer than the last public poll done by SurveyUSA, which showed Inslee with a lead within the poll’s margin.  Every poll but one since February has shown this race within the margin of error  — statistically tied. The one outlier was the most recent Elway poll, and Elway often produces results inconsistent with what other pollster are finding.

Second, a close look at the final results from the primary indicate that Inslee’s advantage was largely the result of unusually low turnout in Republican counties.  Rob McKenna and three other Republicans combined for just over 47 percent in the primary, while Jay Inslee and one other Democrat received just over 50 percent, a gap a little larger than many expected.

But the explanation becomes obvious when you look at who did and not turn in their primary ballots.  Turnout in this primary was unusually small, 38.5 percent. Among the state’s 10 congressional districts, by far the highest turnout was in the 7th CD, which is primarily the city of Seattle.  Just under 176,000 votes were cast in the 7th, 10 percent higher than the next highest CD, the 6th, (Tacoma, Kitsap, Olympic peninsula) which is also a Democratic district.  In the southwest Washington and eastern Washington 3rd and 4th CDs, on the other hand, only 121,000 and 102,000 votes were cast respectively. You can see these results on the state's website.

Breaking the vote down further it is clear that the city of Seattle voters returned their ballots at a normal rate, while heavily Republican areas of the state did not.  Seattle cast just over 160,000 votes, a voting rate of 42 percent.  This is the almost exactly the same number of votes Seattle cast in the 2010 primary.

In contrast, turnout in Clark County was 31 percent, down 8 percent from 2010.  The turnout in Spokane County was down 4 percent from 2010.  Benton County, down 8 percent.  Franklin County, down 10 percent.  Lewis County, down 8 percent.  And in Yakima County turnout was down 6 percent from 2010.

The math here is pretty simple.  If Republican counties had returned their ballots at 2010 levels, as Seattle did, the results in the Governor’s race, and every statewide partisan race, would’ve looked better for the GOP.

Perception is often reality, but that’s not always the case in politics.  For months a lot of people believed Rob McKenna was comfortably ahead in the Governor’s race.  He wasn’t.  Likewise, Jay Inslee is not ahead now.  The evidence still says this race is a dead heat.




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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.