I have been waiting to comment on the results of the election until all the votes were counted and we had data divided by legislative district and congressional district. The results at the national level and in the governor’s race were so different than I expected based on polling done by professionals I respect that I wanted to wait and see the total results before drawing any conclusions. But with the counting all but over, one thing is clear: Outside the city of Seattle, turnout in Washington state was down compared to 2008, which created an electorate even less likely to elect what would have been the first Republican governor in 28 years.
By now the narrative of the 2012 election is well known. Non-white and younger voters made up a greater share of the electorate than ever before, and these changing demographics propelled President Obama and Democrats to victory. There is no doubt that is true. The exit polls confirm it. But did the percentages change because more blacks, Latinos and young voters turned out, or because more older, white voters stayed home? The latter is the thesis some national analysts are advancing.
In Washington state, ballot return statistics seem to support the notion that Democrats voted and Republicans didn’t, at least not as they have in the past.
Statewide turnout in 2008 was 84.6 percent. This year it will likely not reach 81 percent.
In 2008, turnout in the city of Seattle was 86 percent. This year it is at 84 percent and is likely to edge slightly higher. The 7th Congressional District — Seattle — has so far returned 354,000 ballots, far more than any other district. King County turnout overall is likely to be down only slightly from 2008. So in Seattle and the rest of King County, voters turned out at roughly the same rate they did in 2008.
But look at 2012 turnout compared to 2008 in “Republican” counties: Benton, Chelan, Douglas, and Pierce, down 3 percent. Skagit, down 5 percent. Clark, Cowlitz, Kitsap, and Spokane, down 6 percent. Lewis and Yakima, down 7 percent. Grant, down 8 percent; and Franklin, down 9 percent.
This pattern of low turnout in Republican areas occurred in the August primary, but I don’t know any campaign professional who expected it to repeat in the general election.
I have no idea why turnout is down outside the urban core of our state. I do know that the Washington State Republican Party and the Rob McKenna campaign conducted a professional, well-funded get-out-the-vote effort. I don’t think campaign mechanics were the culprit.
According to exit polls, the percentage of young voters and non-white votes rose dramatically in Washington state, just as it did across the nation. As a result, Democrats enjoyed a 13 percent advantage in party identification, even higher than the partisan edge they had in 2008. Clearly, the failure of voters outside Seattle and King County to turn in ballots at the same rate they did four years ago played a major role.
Of course, the election of 2012 was about far more than turnout. Once all the results are in I will offer some thoughts on what happened, and what the immediate future holds.