5 lessons for the future: How I-594 did so well with suburban, rural voters

As gun-safety advocates look ahead, the voting numbers show why they have hope -- and why they need to be very smart to keep winning.
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Credit: Peter Dutton/Flickr

As gun-safety advocates look ahead, the voting numbers show why they have hope -- and why they need to be very smart to keep winning.

Last Tuesday’s resounding victory for Washington’s Initiative 594 made it the ballot measure that launched a million think-pieces. The Atlantic called it “a historical rebuke” of the National Rifle Association. New York Times op-ed contributor Timothy Egan argued that “Washington showed the model for other states.” Elsewhere, the Times’ editorial board heralded I-594 as both a victory for disillusioned liberals and a “good idea.”

On a dark night for Democrats, Initiative 594 – the background check measure that currently leads statewide 58.9 percent to 41.1 percent – was a bright spot so rare it shone nationwide.

Gun control supporters have made it no secret that I-594 was a test balloon for further measures. But that invites an important question: How much can the I-594 results teach us about the future of gun control in Washington?

The answer is, almost certainly, a lot. I-594’s lopsided victory is a considerable mandate for background checks. Further gun control? The answer is decidedly mixed. When it comes to the future of gun control, there are a lot of takeaways from Tuesday’s election. Here are five of them you should know.

1. I-594 won record-breaking margins in urban areas.
Washington’s urban areas have a reputation for two things: social liberalism, and strong Democratic control. I-594, however, looks posed to set some records in the cities. The Election Night report from King County shows I-594 at 91.4 percent in the 43rd District, the Seattle district containing Capitol Hill, the Central District and the University District. That’s a stronger performance than Barack Obama, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization.  

2. I-594 won an impressive number of conservative voters.
Washington’s liberal, but it’s not that liberal. In a good year for Democrats like 2008, Washington isn’t quite 59 percent Democratic. By pure math, that means I-594 had to have won some Republican votes. Even on ideologically polarizing issues like same-sex marriage, some swaths of voters are apt to cross the aisle.

In the case of I-594, it was a lot of voters. The measure won some hardcore Republican territory. It transcended the typical urban/rural divide, which typically fades from blue to purple as you progress from inner suburbs to exurbs. In the case of I-594, the Seattle-Tacoma area has nearly zero suburban precincts opposing I-594. Those that did were overwhelmingly in fairly rural environments — places like the Puyallup-area South Hill, with large land parcels and the occasional horse stable. I-594 won a lot of unconventional territory — even military bases, where early results have it over 60 percent.

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Check out the map above of the Spokane metropolitan area. Spokane is a Democratic city, but moderately so, and its suburbs lean strongly Republican. Barack Obama received 54 percent in the City of Spokane, but only 43 percent in exurban Spokane Valley, and a scant 34 percent in wealthy Liberty Lake. I-594 fared much better. As the map reflects, Friday’s results show it at 62 percent in Spokane, and virtually tied in Spokane Valley, despite the rural character of much of the city. In Liberty Lake, among the state’s most conservative suburbs, I-594 received an impressive 56 percent.

This over-performance was replicated in other suburban areas. On Bainbridge Island, some precincts approached 9-to-1 margins. Early results also suggest 3-to-1 showings in much of King County’s Eastside. In short, I-594 won a lot of Republican-leaning suburbanites, especially in upscale areas. Call it a breakthrough into the Country Club Republican demographic.

Literally, in fact. I-594 is winning all of Washington state’s ancestrally Republican country clubs as of counting through Sunday, in and out of the Seattle metro. It currently is registering 2-to-1 margins in the precincts around Sunland near Sequim, Skagit Country Club, Spokane Country Club, and the Olympia-area Indian Summer and Capitol City Golf Clubs. Most are Republican strongholds.

3. I-594 broke the Cascade Curtain.
The much-vaunted Cascade Curtain, the imaginary line separating liberal Western Washington from conservative Eastern Washington, is a bit overplayed. There are plenty of Republican areas out West, and some Democratic strongholds in the East. Nonetheless, on an issue like gun rights, the perception is that the East-West divide is irreconcilable.

Not totally. It’s true that current results show I-594 passing only three Eastern counties — Spokane, plus narrow victories in Whitman (Pullman) and Asotin (Clarkston). However, many of the losses aren’t landslides. I-594 didn’t lose by much in Walla Walla or Yakima counties, and seems to have won both namesake cities. It also is essentially tied in Richland, a staunchly Republican city. Finally, even some smaller towns like Adams County’s Othello — visited by occasional violence — are easily approving the measure.

All in all, I-594 trailed in Eastern Washington by a scant 46.4 percent to 53.6 percent. That’s very different than state average, but also very different than political stereotypes might suggest.

4) I-594 and I-591 are totally incompatible, but a lot of voters supported both anyway.
So far, this list has been a litany of reasons that I-594’s performance was impressive. Well, folks, here’s the rub. I-594’s 59 percent is certainly a triumphant result, but it wasn’t the only measure on the Washington state ballot. Initiative 591, a contradictory measure to limit gun control to federal standards, was also on the ballot. As a campaign item, it was a disaster. The NRA declined to formally support it. Even traditionally conservative state newspapers didn’t endorse it.

And, on Election Day, it didn’t do half bad.

So far, I-591 is managing 45 percent of the vote, indicating that plenty of voters supported the contradictory measures. Five counties — Asotin, Clallam, Clark, Pierce and Spokane — are voting for both.

Why? The official ballot language is probably part of it. I-591’s ballot statement indicates it “would prohibit government agencies from confiscating guns or other firearms from citizens without due process.” While the next sentence clearly indicates it restricts background checks “unless a uniform national standard is required,” it is quite possible that many voters did not notice this contradiction, and focused on the “due process” language in I-591. Many voted to support background checks, but then voted to oppose “gun grabs.”

This reflects a general tendency of voters to be ambivalent – sometimes even internally inconsistent — on many issues, from abortion to gun control. This phenomenon isn’t new and is well-documented in scientific studies. That is absolutely not ground to dismiss I-591’s decent showing. In fact, it leads to the final, most important take-away.

5) I-594 is a mandate for background checks, but the gun control battle isn’t over.
The voters may not quite have known what they were voting for, but they knew what they were communicating. They had a measure supporting background checks, which they easily supported. And they had a measure very restrictively opposing gun control, which they nearly supported.

In other words, nearly half of Washington voters indicated trepidation on gun control, all while nearly 60 percent supported background checks. The electorate has made their ambivalence pretty clear. Restrictive gun control likely has a ceiling of around 55 percent — in fact, probably below that.

This isn’t news. In 1997, Washington overwhelmingly rejected a measure to require trigger-locking devices on hand guns. While Seattle proper voted for Initiative 676, it failed King County, and only received 29 percent statewide. Eastern Washington delivered it a punishingly low 15 percent, and in six counties, that figure was under 10 percent.

Initiative 676 was a terminally flawed measure unlikely to be repeated. However, this does show that the floor support for gun control measures in Washington is way, way below 50 percent. It also shows that a measure can be acceptable to a majority of Seattle voters, but lose nearly every voter in some rural areas.

I-594, in contrast, triumphed because of support in cities and towns well outside the urban core. Any measure that is more restrictive will need to retain the vast majority of that support.

The point here is not that gun control is a troubled issue. I-594 is a big victory. Instead, the point is that gun control is an issue where voters are malleable. This is corroborated by the polling years ago from the I-676 campaign, which had given the doomed measure a narrow lead in October. Gun control has a lot of swing voters. They’re the very small-town and suburban voters that gave I-594 its big win.

Gun control supporters leave this year with a significant victory, and a mandate for background checks. They also leave it with a set of messaging and goals that could easily be taken to other states. However, they also have a clear signal of an electorate with mixed feelings on gun control.

For proponents to continue to succeed, momentum won’t be enough. They’ll need more canny and well-messaged policy proposals like I-594 in their arsenal.


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