Six weeks from election day it appears Republican Gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna is keeping his head above water, swimming against a predominantly Democratic tide in Washington state. Recent national and local polling indicates that Democrats have a significant generic advantage at this point in election 2012, but that the race for governor is still a dead heat.
There is no doubt that the Democrats won the battle of the national conventions. President Obama has a small, but persistent lead over Republican Mitt Romney, both in national and state polls. The president continues to lead in every battleground state other than North Carolina. The race for president is competitive, but, Obama is clearly ahead at this point.
There isn’t as much generic (party preference) ballot tracking this cycle as there has been in recent elections, as pollsters focus instead on tracking the presidential race. Still, Rasmussen, whose results tend to favor the GOP, gives Republicans only a one point lead. In 2010, Rasmussen reported a 12 percent generic advantage for Republicans. Although 2012 is not looking like a Democratic landslide, at the national level there appears to be a gentle tide favoring President Obama and his party.
Here in Washington state the presidential preferences are not so ambiguous. Both Elway and Survey USA released polls earlier this month. In both, President Obama holds huge leads here, ahead by 17 percent in one poll, 16 percent in the other. Elway found a 16 percent generic advantage for Democrats in Washington state, while Survey USA gave the Democrats a 10 percent advantage. Two years ago, Survey USA’s final poll showed only a 4 percent generic Democratic advantage. Their most recent poll, on the other hand looks virtually identical to their final poll in 2008, which showed Ds ahead by 11 percent and President Obama ahead by 16 percent.
Both polls also showed other Republican statewide candidates trailing by significant margins.
So the current political atmosphere in Washington is as bad for Republicans as it was in 2008, and yet Survey USA showed Democrat Jay Inslee leading McKenna by only 5 points, and Elway showed Inslee ahead by 3, within the poll’s margin of error. In addition, I am aware of private polling taken since these two media polls were done, which shows the race even closer, essentially tied.
McKenna is being forced to swim against a strong tide, and so far he is surviving. The work he has done throughout his career, and earlier in the campaign, to position himself as a different type of Republican, especially on education, is paying off. And unlike other Republicans on the ballot, he has raised enough money to be on TV, giving him a chance to drive out his own message, so he is not defined by simply being a Republican.
If Democrats maintain a double-digit generic advantage in Washington state, many close legislative races, and all the minor statewide offices will fall to the Democrats. Attorney General candidate Reagan Dunn, a Republican member of the King County Council, will have enough money to get a substantial message on TV, giving him a fighting chance, but he too is swimming against the tide.
The race for governor sits on a razor’s edge with six weeks to go. If Obama dominates the upcoming debates and the national situation for the GOP becomes worse, it may not matter what the McKenna campaign does — the tide will be too strong. If, on the other hand, national momentum moves just a bit towards the GOP, McKenna will be positioned for victory.
There is one other card left to be played in the governor’s race. Neither campaign has spent any money yet defining the opponent. All their ads to this point have been positive and autobiographical, while their allies (the Our Washington SuperPAC for the Ds, and the Republican Governor’s Association for the Rs) have delivered the attack messages. Presumably the McKenna and Inslee campaigns will soon deliver contrast messages of their own. Those messages, delivered at saturation levels, could move poll numbers.