OLYMPIA, Nov. 2.—There’s a quiet trend at work as the ballots stack up at county elections offices across Washington state. A third of the ballots are in and all signs are that they reflect a heavy tilt to the Dems – underscoring the importance of get-out-the-vote efforts by both parties in the final weekend of this year’s election season.
Polls in this state, both public and private, appear to mirror the results being seen nationwide indicating that Democrats have a big advantage in the ballots that have been cast prior to the final weekend – somewhere in the two-point range. That’s of particular importance in Washington, where all voting is by mail for the first time in a presidential year, and this state’s high-profile gubernatorial contest is down to the wire. The Democratic surge in early voting demonstrates once again that old conventional wisdom about voting patterns has to be tossed out the window under Washington’s new by-mail voting system.
It definitely is a brave new world. Election day in Washington state really started on Oct. 18, when ballots started arriving in mailboxes across the state. About a third of Washington’s 3.9 million voters had mailed in their ballots by Halloween. Most voting still takes place as election day approaches, during the final weekend and that final Monday and Tuesday. Elections officials at the Washington secretary of state’s office are projecting 81 percent participation – and in some areas with hot local races participation is expected to be even higher.
What it means is that everything hinges on that final get-out-the-vote drive taking place this weekend, as thousands of volunteers on both sides pack phone rooms and partisans pound on the doors of every Republican and Democratic voter in the state, reminding them to get their ballots in, or even offering to take it to the mailbox, if need be. Dems have to convince their less-reliable voters to fill out their ballots. Republicans have to light a fire.
Early Voting Shows Two-Point Tilt
Let’s go to those numbers. The Washington Poll, the University of Washington-based operation that conducts one of the five major polls in the field this season, released fresh results Thursday. The Washington Poll is the least reliable when it comes to depicting fast-changing trends, because it is conducted over a long period of time – in this case, from Oct. 18 to Oct. 31. But it asked two questions the others didn’t – have you mailed in your ballot yet? And if so, which way did you vote?
The results are most striking in the wide-open race to succeed Gov. Christine Gregoire. Among likely voters, the poll indicates Democrat Jay Inslee has the advantage over Republican Rob McKenna, 48.7 to 45.6. But a third of the 722 respondents, 33.4 percent, said they had already mailed their ballots. And among those voters there is a two-point tilt toward Inslee, 51.2 percent versus McKenna’s 47.8 percent.
The same two-point difference is in evidence in the presidential race, though the result isn’t quite so dramatic. There the expected Obama landslide in this state just gets bigger, to 59.9 percent.
Here’s the thing. The Washington Poll isn’t the only indication of a two-point difference between the early ballots and the general voting population. Washington State Wire spoke Thursday with campaign staffers of all flavors, Republicans, Democrats and initiative-types. None of them are sharing their internal polling data, of course. But all say they see the same thing – a two-point tilt in early voting to the Ds.
Battle Moves to the Streets
One has to take the Washington Poll with a grain of salt when it comes to the head-to-head Inslee versus McKenna contest. Other polls do their sampling over days, not weeks, and their snapshot approach has been showing a surge for McKenna. A KING-5/Survey USA poll conducted Oct. 28-31 and released Thursday showed Inslee ahead by just one point among likely voters, 47-46 – well within the margin of error.
And if that big Democratic advantage in the early voting is going to be erased when the bulk of Washington voters fill out their ballots this weekend, one might ask whether it matters at all.
But what it does show is that the war isn’t over yet and the fighting has moved to the streets. It’s hard to imagine an argument that hasn’t been debated and an avenue of attack that hasn’t been turned into a television ad. This is the point when the party base comes into play. The Ds and Rs have spent months identifying their supporters with Voter-ID polls and records from previous elections. Now it’s time for the ground game. Says pollster Stuart Elway, “We’re at the point now during the campaign where you have a frantic impulse to do something – but there’s almost nothing you can do. So get out the vote seems like a good thing to do.”
Difference in Tactics
Republicans right now are packing 15 phone banks across the state and volunteers will be walking the streets this weekend, pounding on doors. So far this season they have recorded 1.3 million voter-contact calls and hope to make at least 200,000 more; they say they have knocked on 75,000 doors.
The GOP is well aware of the early-voting tilt toward the Ds, says party chairman Kirby Wilbur – the same trend has been noted in an even clearer fashion in the so-called swing states, where voters register by party and there has been a big push by Democrats for early absentee and in-person voting. News accounts indicate that in Iowa and Nevada early voting seems to be particularly skewed toward Democrats, perhaps not so much in other states. Strategy here is a little different: Washington and Oregon are the only two states that have switched entirely to by-mail voting. But really, Democrats are making the same push everywhere, Wilbur says, and Republicans are trying to deploy an effective counterplan.
“The national experience has been that Republicans tend to vote on polling day, and what the Democrats are doing right now nationally and here is that they are going after the high-propensity voters – in other words, they are getting the people who are going to be voting anyway. We have been focusing on the lower-propensity voters, because the higher-propensity voters will vote, and come election day we will be focusing on those as well, Monday and Tuesday, but I think they are going for the low-hanging fruit and we are not, and that has to be part of the difference.
“That may lead to some distortion in the Democrat numbers right now. We don’t register by party, so this is all really guessing. But our focus is going to be overall on getting everybody out to vote and their focus seems to be on getting votes in early. I do not think this is a sign of a Democrat landslide. I’ve looked at the numbers, and I’m not worried.”
No Space to Sit
Meanwhile Democratic Party spokesman Benton Strong says it’s hard to find a place to sit at the Democratic phone bank in Seattle. “We’ve got a big warehouse space that I walked through last night and there are just people scurrying about the floor with phones in their hands making phone calls everywhere – there’s no space in our office to do this, because people are just excited to do this work so we can get out the vote in the next few days.”
Democrats say they’ve made 3 million calls and knocked on a million doors. Of course it’s a little hard to compare the two teams’ numbers, because it’s all in how the numbers are counted and what each side reports. But the Democrats are known for their ground game and the big base of already-organized volunteers they get from unions and other organizations. Early voting, late voting – it doesn’t matter as much as max voting, Strong says. “We know these elections are close and that is why we put in this kind of effort, because this is where close elections are won,” he said.
The Most Important Election Ever
One lesson of the early-voting phenomenon is that the old wisdom really doesn’t apply anymore. Back in the days when only a small percentage of Washington voters cast absentee ballots – essentially the same thing as today’s by-mail ballots – the early voting showed a decided Republican tilt. Those who voted absentee tended to be more dedicated voters, older, perhaps whiter, and it was the election-day returns that tilted more to the Democratic side. Dave Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office and a former reporter for the Associated Press, said, “I remember the old rule of thumb was that the absentees were always going to come back Republican-leaning because those were rich people who could afford to go south and afford not to be at home in rainy November – I heard that many times.”
So much for that. And whatever strategy might be at play this year, some things never change. You have the exhortations to party faithful at final week campaign rallies – Rob McKenna has been making a 28-city tour of the state this final week. Democrats have been holding rallies of their own. Democratic congressional Denny Heck got off the line of the season as he appeared alongside U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell at an Olympia rally Wednesday evening – or at least one that might make weary election observers smile.
“Every election people come before you and they lean into the podium and they say in this breathy manner, this is the most important election of our lifetime,” he said. “But it is. It’s truly is. I am 60 years old and I’m here to tell you this is far and away the most important election of our lifetime.”