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Early voting trends bode ill for Gregoire

Early voting trends bode ill for Gregoire

By Daniel Lathrop
November 03, 2008

A Seattle P-I analysis of voting returns in Washington shows that increased turnout in Republican-dominated counties gives Rossi an edge and that Gregoire needs to either improve her margins or achieve nearly universal participation in the Democratic stronghold of King County to win.

To conduct the analysis, the P-I collected ballot return statistics from all 39 counties late last week, updating as many as possible Friday.

As of Friday, King County had the fifth-worst turnout among absentee voters and the lowest percentage of total voters to cast a ballot, the P-I found.

The two counties with the best turnout in the figures the P-I obtained were Jefferson, 63.6 percent, and Pacific, 61.6 percent. Both went for Gregoire in 2004.

Despite those bright spots for Gregoire, the analysis shows that the Republican Rossi likely would win if relative turnout does not increase in King County and the state's political fault lines remain similar to 2004. Most of the 14 counties that already have had more than half of voters cast a ballot went for Rossi in 2004.

Based on 2004 precinct totals, this year's early voting in King County favors Gregoire by a similar margin.

Of course, both candidates are doing their best to shift those four-year-old political boundaries and have targeted voters they think they can persuade.

"With an election so close, there are votes to be had across the state," Gregoire spokesman Aaron Toso said. "That's why the governor has been running a 'One Washington' campaign."

Toso pointed to Gregoire's improved performance in the primary this year over 2004, increasing her margin over Rossi in King County and pulling past him in Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties, where she lost to him in 2004.

Indeed, in the waning days of the election, Gregoire has made stops all over the state, including recent visits to Spokane, Whitman and Clark counties, often considered hostile territory for Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, Toso said, campaign volunteers have made more than 600,000 calls in an "unprecedented" get-out-the-vote effort launched when absentee voting began Oct. 15.

"It's a different kind of field campaign. A high turnout helps Democrats in general, and we're feeling good at where we're at," Toso said.

But one of the state's top Democratic pollsters sees those efforts largely canceling each other out.

"I think this is going to be a very similar dynamic to what you saw last time. I don't think that there's anything out there that's going to make a big difference in, say, Snohomish or Pierce or Kitsap," said Don McDonough of DMA Market Research in Seattle. McDonough has worked for many of the state's most prominent Democrats, but is not affiliated with the Gregoire campaign.

So far, 42 percent of King County absentees have voted, about 28 percent of the total registered voters. In contrast, at least 14 counties had already had more than half of registered voters return their ballots. In 2004, Gregoire beat Rossi 58 percent to 40 percent in King.

The dynamics of nearly universal vote-by-mail have not yet been tested in a gubernatorial election. Since 2004, the state has gone from having five vote-by-mail counties to 37. Rossi has polled in the mid- to high 40s, but undecided voters historically favor challengers over incumbents.

"What will save Gregoire is higher Democratic turnout and a better Democratic ground operation" than in 2004, McDonough said. "Now what will hurt her is Barack Obama's tendency maybe to turn that focus to states that are battlegrounds."

The Obama campaign launched a major effort Saturday to boost turnout by Democratic voters in Washington, but with Obama polling much better than Gregoire, that effort could be a mixed blessing.

Another "X" factor remains whether the voters who turn out for Democratic presidential candidate Obama will be so-called Dinocrats, voters who backed Democratic nominee John Kerry for president in 2004 but voted for Rossi in the governor's race.

"Our campaign has extensive get-out-the-vote efforts in both King and Pierce counties that include organized phone banking and doorbelling," Rossi campaign spokeswoman Jill Strait said.

"Turning out voters in both counties is of vital importance to winning this election, and with the 'Dinocrat' movement and the double-digit lead Dino has among young voters, we anticipate strong support from even traditionally Democrat-leaning areas.

Nationally, Gregoire is considered the most endangered Democratic governor or senator and Rossi as the best shot for a major Republican upset. Republicans hope to repeat the upset that Republican Dan Evans pulled when he beat Gov. Al Rosellini, a Democrat, in 1964, the year of President Johnson's rout of Republican challenger Barry Goldwater.

So far, independent polling has given an edge to Gregoire, with 50 percent to 51 percent.

It was voters in King County, the state's largest, whose overwhelming backing of Gregoire in 2004 clinched the razor-thin election, and so far they are voting at one of the lowest rates in this election, and the turnout dynamics discovered by the P-I indicate surprising weakness in the Democratic stronghold compared with other areas.

If King County votes at the level predicted by elections officials here -- 85 percent -- a repeat of Rossi's 2004 margins would put him over the top unless the political landscape somehow improves for Gregoire.

In that dynamic, one bright spot for the Democrat is Jefferson County, home to Port Townsend, which she won overwhelmingly in 2004. Gregoire won nearly 58 percent of the vote there in 2004, and Jefferson County had the highest early voting rate in the state: 63.6 percent of voters already had cast a ballot Friday. Historically, Jefferson is one of the counties with the highest turnout.

"Jefferson County? It's just something in the water. It's a very politically active county," said Nick Handy, elections director for the secretary of state.

In the many less-populous, Republican-dominated counties, Handy attributed the high turnout seen so far to handfuls of "super-vigilant party activists," who in small counties can drive a significant amount of voter turnout.

Secretary of State Sam Reed has predicted 83 percent statewide turnout, a rate that would be reached if trends hold in most counties and if King County performs slightly better than it has so far.

While about half of mail-in ballots are typically returned before the week of the election, state elections analyst David Motz said that it is not clear whether the turnout surge outside the Seattle metropolitan area indicates that voters there will vote more heavily than voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

"People that are waiting until the last minute to vote are probably still thinking about the issues and the candidates," he said. "In a metro area, you're going to have a more diverse population and therefore maybe more undecideds."
P-I reporter Daniel Lathrop can be reached at 206-448-8157 or