OLYMPIA, Oct. 25.—Looks like those who decided Washington’s gubernatorial race was all over last summer may have been a bit hasty. A new survey from pollster Stuart Elway puts Republican Rob McKenna out in front, the first poll to do so in months — and it underscores a trend that has shown up in every poll that has been released over the last couple of weeks: A big lead for Democrat Jay Inslee has evaporated.
Or in other words, Nov. 6 is anything-can-happen day. Elway’s latest poll, conducted last week just after ballots began arriving in mailboxes across Washington state, puts McKenna ahead 47-45 among likely voters. That comes on the heels of two other polls released in the last week declaring the race a virtual dead heat, and two others that showed a significant narrowing has taken place in the last month. When you put ‘em all together, a trend is clear. A shift is afoot. And while there’s no predicting a winner, it’s obvious this one is down to the wire.
Elway spoke with Washington State Wire Wednesday about the latest polling numbers. Finally we’re starting to see the last few undecided voters in the state starting to make up their minds, he says, and it looks like they’re veering Republican. “All of a sudden, after being static all summer long, it has gotten very dynamic and fluid, and people are taking another look,” he said. “You can say we don’t predict elections until you’re blue in the face. But what I’m saying here is that this one is so dynamic, and there is such a huge undecided vote in the down-ballot races and some of the ballot measure, that there is no way to predict what could happen in the last two weeks.”
The Third-Act Twist
You can’t say all polls are created equal, and of course all they do is offer a snapshot of voter mood at the time they are conducted. When things are this close, the margin of error could throw any one of them off. But when so many show basically the same thing, it’s probably time to take notice. And if you squint a little and take the polling as a whole, a story emerges. In the first year of the gubernatorial race, from the time both candidates entered the ring in June 2011, Attorney General McKenna enjoyed an enormous lead over former Congressman Inslee, as much as nine points, which might be explained by his greater name familiarity after winning two statewide races. But the moment Inslee began running TV ads over the 4th of July weekend, suddenly everything shifted, and some showed the Democrat up by as many as six points.
“Inslee came on with a strong start; his first ads were really good, and he introduces himself – suddenly there are two people in the race, and one of them is a Democrat – which in this state means you have the wind at your back,” Elway said. “So I think over the course of the summer voters became aware that there was this credible Democrat in the race, and so his numbers go up. Then we get down to the fall, phase three here, and they have had five debates. McKenna seems to be outspending him on TV – at least the TV I’ve been watching – and the voters have had a chance to evaluate the two candidates side-by-side as real people. Now McKenna comes back up essentially even.
“So I think it is about becoming familiar with the candidates, as well as a party effect in the middle of the summer which now seems to have shifted again.”
What the Numbers Show
The polls tell an interesting and strikingly consistent story. Every poll now shows the race to be so close that it is within the margin of error. The narrowing has taken place during the same time period as the final-sprint ad blitz, and as McKenna and Inslee faced each other in the last three of their five televised debates. And now, the freshest of those polls shows McKenna to have a slight advantage.
Let’s go to those numbers. Elway, like other pollsters at this stage of the game, is sampling “likely voters” – those who cast ballots in at least one of the four previous elections, about 80 percent of Washington’s 3.9 million registered voters.
His poll of 451 likely voters was conducted Oct. 18-21, starting the day that Washington’s by-mail ballots arrived in most mailboxes across the state. And it shows a big reversal of the trend in his previous polls. In July, it was 43-36 for Inslee; in September he showed Inslee ahead again 44-41. This time, using a sample of likely voters, Elway now shows the race tilting to McKenna by two points.
While there are differences in sample sizes and the ways polls are conducted – Elway, unlike most, uses interviewers rather than a simple push-the-button approach – what is most striking are the dates on which the polls have taken place. The Washington Poll, released last week, was conducted Oct. 1-16. That one showed Inslee ahead 47.1 percent to 46.3 percent among likely voters – less than a single percentage point of advantage. Another poll by the public affairs firm Strategies 360, released earlier this week, was conducted during roughly the same time period as Elway’s poll, between Oct. 17 and Oct. 20. That one showed the race tied up at 46-46.
And for those who consider themselves completists, there are two other polls in the field. A KING-5/Survey USA poll conducted Oct. 12-14, wasn’t quite as close – 47-44 for Inslee among likely voters. Yet it also showed the same narrowing trend. Its previous poll, in September, showed Inslee ahead 48-42. A Rasmussen poll Oct. 14 showed Inslee ahead 47-45 among likely voters.
Take ‘em all together and you can conclude one thing. This race isn’t over. And it’s all going to come down to that handful of voters in the middle who still haven’t made up their minds.
War on Women Theme Falling Flat?
Elway, like all who crunch the numbers, ponders the reasons. It might be the TV advertising, it might be the debates, or it might be national trends. The Republican brand seems to be on the upswing nationally with the rising stock of Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He also notes an interesting phenomenon: In the last month he says women voters have been shifting allegiance. In his poll last month 52 percent of women identified themselves as Democrats, 20 percent as Republicans. This month only 39 percent said Democrat and 31 percent Republican. Exactly why isn’t clear, though it might be noted that this year Democrats have centered a large part of their pitch at women voters, equating Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act to insensitivity to women’s issues, and raising the specter of new assaults on abortion rights. Could it be that the pitch is falling flat?
“If I knew the answer to that question, I would be hiring myself out as a national consultant, because that is the lock everyone is trying to find the key to,” he said. “I can’t think of a reason why that would have happened, but nationally, on the eve of the first [presidential] debate, Obama had an 18-point lead among women, and on the eve of the second debate it was one point, so if you could have told me that one 90-minute debate would make that kind of a difference, I would not have believed it, and I’m still not sure that it did. But something is going on, and I don’t think anybody has figured it out.”
But he notes that in recent weeks, McKenna’s TV ads have been pitched directly at women voters. “If you look at McKenna’s ads, for example, he is never there without his daughters and his wife – I mean, it is like a trio.”
It’s worth noting that the Strategies 360 poll, going after the question a different way, found Inslee leading among female voters 52-42.
Two Other Dead Heats
In two other down-ballot races, it’s looking like things are a dead heat. In the race for attorney general, Elway says Democrat Bob Ferguson is leading Republican Reagan Dunn 38-36, leaving things to the undecideds. In the race for secretary of state, Democrat Kathleen Drew and Republican Kim Wyman are tied with 34 percent.
The auditor and lieutenant governor races aren’t looking so close. Democratic auditor candidate Troy Kelley is leading Republican James Watkins 34-29. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Brad Owen is leading Republican Bill Finkbeiner 42-32.
This year’s ballot-measure campaigns, meanwhile, are a bit of an anomaly. All four of the major measures are leading, but the conventional wisdom is that a huge drop-off in support will take place during the final weeks. That isn’t happening, Elway notes. It might be that the hot gubernatorial race is absorbing all the attention and money, and effective opposition campaigns aren’t being mounted. The state teachers’ union, for instance, is usually an ardent opponent of charter-schools measures, but this year the Washington Education Association is putting up only a token fight against I-1240 as it trains its resources on the gubernatorial race. The usual union-and-trial-lawyer coalition that emerges to fight anti-tax measures like this year’s I-1185, which renews the Legislature’s two-thirds-for-taxes voting requirement, has been putting its resources into the governor’s race as well. It may be that there “isn’t enough air in the room” for the usually hard-fought initiative battles, Elway says.
His poll shows the charter schools measure leading 48-35 and the tax measure ahead 49-30. I-502, which would legalize marijuana, is leading 48-44. Referendum 74, which would affirm the Legislature’s same-sex marriage bill, is ahead 49-45.