For most Washington voters, the governor’s race is just beginning

Just 24% of poll respondents said they’ve decided on a candidate. Last time the seat was open, half of voters knew who they were supporting by January.

parent and child put ballots in a drop box

Voters drop off ballots at the White Center Library ballot box on voting day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Crosscut published its first story about the 2024 governor’s race on May 1, 2023. But for most of us that race is just beginning, according to the results of the latest Crosscut/Elway Poll

Just 24% of registered voters who responded to the late December poll say they have decided on a gubernatorial candidate they “intend to vote for.”

At about this point on the calendar in 2012, the previous time we had a race for governor with no incumbent, 52% had already decided they were “definitely” voting for either Republican Rob McKenna (28%) or Democrat Jay Inslee (24%). A significant difference from this year, of course, is that only two candidates were in the 2012 race, so party identification provided a strong signal to voters.

This year the race is still a four-way contest among Attorney General Bob Ferguson, former Congressman Dave Reichert, State Sen. Mark Mullet and former Richland school board member Semi Bird, who have been campaigning and raising money for months (or years). 

Much of the difference in the results is likely due to the way we asked the question. Given that the election is almost a year away, we asked respondents what they think of each of the four candidates individually instead of asking them to pick one as if “the election was today.” That typical question focuses on the race – like the score of a game at the end of the first quarter. Instead, our format was intended to focus on voters, who have months to learn about the candidates and decide. How does the race look from their perspective? How and what are they thinking about the race? We wanted to know if they had made up their minds, which candidates they are considering and also which they know they will not vote for.

Of the 24% of respondents who have made up their minds whom to vote for, Ferguson has an insignificant two-point lead over Reichert (12% to 10%). When those who say they “could” vote for those candidates are included, Ferguson’s lead is 37% to 31% – still not statistically significant. They are followed by Mullet (23%) and Bird (17%).

Two other poll findings suggest we are in for a highly partisan campaign.

First, before we asked about the candidates, we asked voters what factors they consider important in deciding whom to support. The question was open-ended, meaning respondents could say whatever they wanted; we then coded the answers into categories. The leading category is party identification or ideology, mentioned by 22% of respondents. When we asked the same question last month about the presidential race, only 13% named party or ideology as a deciding factor.

Second, when we did ask about the candidates, respondents as often indicated someone they will not vote for as someone they will or could vote for. In all, 76% named at least one candidate they could vote for (52%) or intend to vote for (24%), and 71% named at least one they will not vote for. The negative responses are largely concentrated along party lines; not surprising, but indicative of a polarized electorate.

The results also indicate how the candidates are doing within their own parties. Ferguson and Reichert, as expected, are leading in their respective parties, but each has a way to go to solidify his party’s support. Both Democrat Mullet and Republican Bird are trailing, but still in the race.

Our poll analysis divides party identification into “solid” partisans – who would register as a Democrat or Republican if we registered by party in Washington – and “leaners,” who would register as an Independent but typically vote for one party’s candidates.

Among the Democratic base, 65% either intend to vote for Ferguson (20%) or could do so (45%). Just 3% intend to vote for Mullet, but another 37% are open to him. Ferguson’s lead is wider among Democrat-leaning Independents: 56% either are voting for Ferguson (24%) or could (32%). Just 18% support Mullet (3%) or could (15%).

The numbers are similar among the Republican base: 67% are supporting Reichert (24%) or could (43%). For Bird, 45% are supporting him (9%) or could (36%). Among Republican-leaning Independents, the margin is the same: 61% are supporting Reichert (13%) and another 48% could support him, while 40% either are supporting Bird (5%) or could (35%).

After the primary, the path narrows for the Republican candidate. Not in two generations has a Republican candidate for governor won a majority of votes. Since 2000, the average result in governors’ races has been 54% to 45% in favor of the Democrat. There are currently no Republican statewide officials, and Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives for 22 years and both houses of the Legislature since 2018.

Republicans don’t seem to have an improved chance this year. In this survey, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 53% to 34%. This means that to win, a Republican candidate would have to get all Republicans and Republican-leaning voters plus all true Independents and about one-third of Democrat-leaning Independents. A heavy lift.

One issue to keep an eye on is the political argument that “It’s time for a change.” In this poll, 39% say it would be “important” (22%) or “better” (17%) for Democrats to maintain control of state government. But 53% say either that divided party control would be best (25%), or that it would be “important” (18%) or “better” (10%) for Republicans to take control. Look for this theme to show up in Republican campaigns.

Heading into 2024, Democrats have a structural advantage and history on their side. But it’s only January and the political climate is fluid. A couple of other recent polls show Reichert with a slight lead. And as former Secretary of State Sam Reed points out, all but one open-seat governor’s race going back to 1956 have been close.

Cheat sheet for campaign managers

In a state where they are outnumbered by double digits, Republicans will need to find issues and candidates that can sway Independent and “soft” Democrats. According to this poll, the Republican issues with the most potential to swing some Democrats and Independents their way are:

·   Police pursuit reform (favored by 55% of Democrats and 75% of Independents)

·   Repealing the capital gains tax (favored by 44% of Democrats and 58% of Independents)

·   Parental rights (favored by 41% of Democrats and 69% of Independents)

Democrats can counter with:

·   Funding mental health (favored by 73% of Republicans and 75% of Independents)

·   Utility rebates (favored by 57% of Republicans and 66% of Independents)

·   More money for housing (favored by 39% of Republicans and 54% of Independents)

Not included in this poll, but expected to play a significant role in the election: abortion and the presence of Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, neither of which bode well for Republicans in Washington. 

CORRECTION: Fixes percentage of people supporting Bird.

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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.