Analyzing the 2008 East Pierce County Election Results

Karen.jpgKaren Willard was kind enough to analyze last fall's results from East Pierce County.  If you have something similar for your area, please contact us about posting them here.

Analyzing the vote results from eastern Pierce County gives us some lessons about why the Republicans did well in what was otherwise a good Democratic year.  There were a lot of good Democratic candidates - including Darcy Burner, Marilyn Rasmussen, Rob Cerqui, Ron Weigelt, and Bruce Lachney - who lost in the areas east of strongly Democratic Tacoma.  We'd like to change that and there are lessons from this analysis that may help us in 2009 and 2010.

The Area

Eastern Pierce County includes the southern portion of the 8th Congressional District and three state Legislative Districts, the 2nd, the 31st and the 25th.  Part of the 31st is in King County and a tiny portion of the 2nd is in Thurston County but generally these three LD's define eastern Pierce County.

First, the Results

Looking at the races in eastern Pierce County, there were no coattails from the presidential race.  Obama/Biden carried the 2nd, 25th, and 31st Legislative Districts; Chris Gregoire lost all three.  Darcy Burner lost in all three as well. LD and County Council Republicans won in all three areas. When people out here don't know the candidate well, they vote by party label or for the incumbent.  When the incumbent hasn't done something illegal or wildly immoral, he or she doesn't get thrown out. The debacle of the national Republican party did not taint the LD and County Council "R's" of eastern Pierce county.

The 2nd LD

Dino Rossi won in the Pierce county portion of the 2nd LD by about 7,000 votes.

Both 2nd LD Republican House incumbents won handily but Marilyn Rasmussen, the long-time Democratic incumbent in the State Senate, lost to the Republican challenger, Randi Becker.

The 25th LD

Dino Rossi carried the 25th by about 2,000 votes.

The State Senator, Democrat Jim Kastama, and House Representative, Democrat Dawn Morrell, both won re-election handily.  The other House seat was open after the incumbent Republican chose to run instead for County Council.  Democrat Ron Cerqui ran hard, but did NOT manage to capture the seat. Instead the Republican anointed by outgoing McDonald won by 8 points.  (Is this an example of what happened when the Obama campaign's GOTV effort turned out Republicans? See below.)

The 31st LD

Dino Rossi won in the 31st by a little over 4,000 votes. Gregoire won only four of the Pierce County precincts in the 31st, all by narrow margins, and the areas she won in were unexpected - only one precinct in previously thought to be Democratic Sumner and three precincts on the plateau south of Bonney Lake.  How she won those three precincts deserves more attention at a later date.

Both the incumbents, Democrat Chris Hurst and Republican Dan Roach, won easily.  There was no Senate race; the seat is currently held by Pam Roach (Dan's mom), although that may change if she wins the King County Elections race in February.  

Pierce County Executive and County Council

Governor Gregoire DID win Pierce county as a whole (by 2 points), thanks to Tacoma. Because Pierce County voted to try ranked choice voting starting with this election, there was no primary for county races.  For County Executive, the Republicans put up one strong candidate, Shawn Bunney, and the Democrats put up two strong candidates, Calvin Goings and Pat McCarthy.

A fourth candidate did not use either the Republican or Democrat label, though in reality he's a Republican.  Many voters did not make use of the ranked choice voting, which I'll talk about below.  Democrat Pat McCathy, the incumbent County Auditor, only narrowly won the race, when the expectation was that a Democrat would win easily.

Pierce County Council Races

In the four Council races, three Republicans won, two were incumbents, and one incumbent Democrat won.  A very strong Democratic challenger, Bruce Lachney, lost narrowly for Position 3.  Although a RCV race, with only two names on the ballot voters were able to vote this just like a regular race. See below for why I think Bruce Lachney lost.

The Council seat held for 8 years by Democrat Calvin Goings (who ran for Executive) was open, and two Democrats and one Republican (who gave up her State Rep. Seat to run) battled it out. Too many Democrat voters failed to vote for more than just their one favorite Democratic candidate (i.e. didn't vote 1st choice and 2nd choice but instead voted only a 1st choice) and so, although the total of the 1st choice votes for the two Democrats was more than the 1st choice votes for the single Republican, the Republican won the council seat in the end.

Democrat Tim Farrell, incumbent, had only one opponent and so his race was not a test of RCV voting. Tim handily won re-election.  Another Council seat, held by Republican Dick Muri, had only the one Democrat challenging him, and the incumbent won re-election - again not a test of RCV style voting.

Pierce County Sheriff

In 2007 the voters decided the Sheriff's office should be elected not appointed, and should be non-partisan. Incumbent Paul Pastor ran (his first campaign for the office though he's held it for a number of years) and there were two challengers, including convicted-felon-whacko-gadfly Robert "The Traveller" Hill aka Jesse Hill (who, since the election has been arrested twice more and involuntarily committed - temporarily - for an evaluation of his mental state) managed to get 51,587 votes!!!  (can anyone say "name familiarity"?)  Fortunately Sheriff Pastor won election and he continues to be Sheriff.

Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer

However the outcome was not so good in this race. There were six candidates in this race and the voters were allowed to vote and rank three people.  It was a perfect opportunity to test out ranked choice voting.  Of the six, one was superbly qualified, another had good name recognition from having been on the County Council plus the great qualification of having successfully held the office before, and several of the others had varying degrees of qualification.  One guy, Dale Washam, is thought by many to be as mentally unstable as Robert Hill (see Sheriff's race above) and is totally unqualified to be Assessor-Treasure, but thanks to his long career as a gadfly he's been in the news quite a bit.  He won...  Is this what RCV was supposed to lead to?

Analysis - my thoughts on what happened

Candidate loyalty

People in eastern Pierce vote by Party and if they're an Independent they generally vote for the incumbent regardless of party.  If they know their local incumbent, and the challenger hasn't made the case to fire 'em, there won't be a change. For example, the voters in the 31st voters know and like Democrat Chris Hurst and the challenger could make no case to unseat him.

The Democratic challenger tried to make a case that Representative Dan Roach, Republican incumbent and son of the state senator, was corrupt and sleazy and should be turned out (paying himself from campaign funds; deliberately filing PDC reports late to hide his donors; and so forth).  It may have been a strong case but it didn't gain traction.  The Independents were not persuaded; the Republicans voted for him once again; and there are not enough Democrats to make the difference.

The same thing apparently happened with Dave Reichert in the 8th Congressional seat.  The Independent voters did not think they had been given enough reason to vote for Darcy and turn Reichert out.  It needed to be a really strong story to overcome the natural resistance to firing him that voters who had voted twice before for him feel. After all, we Democrats were telling them they'd twice before made a mistake. Nobody likes to be told they've been wrong.

Note that these were the same people who voted for Obama.

Marilyn Rasmussen, long-time incumbent State Senator in the 2nd, has a loyal base.  However, her challenger, Randi Becker, was able to persuade the voters that Marilyn was not serving them well. Marilyn did not respond to the nasty attacks leveled against her - believing that to respond was to descend into the muck with the BIAW and the "R's" - and lost.

Unintended (and intended) consequences

The Coordinated Campaign focused on getting out EVERYONE they'd identified as favoring Obama over McCain.  Their GOTV campaign clearly brought out a lot of voters for Obama who then went on to vote for Republicans, and in fact, who are generally Republican and Republican-leaning Independents (I saw some of the lists).  These are voters who might have stayed home and not turned in their ballots at all if not for the GOTV efforts by the Obama campaign.  Washington state was clearly going to give all our electoral votes to Obama/Biden. Why did the GOTV need to work so hard to turn out Obama voters? Why not instead focus on Gregoire voters, a different category, (and ignore those Republican and Republican-leaning Obama voters)?

Internal polling evidently told the Rossi people that he was going to lose Pierce County as a whole but would win the eastern portion of the county.  The response of the campaign was masterful.  In terms of the advertising dollars, Rossi's campaign and/or the BIAW quit concentrating on Rossi alone.  Photos began showing up on Republican campaign lit and on TV that showed Rossi with the other Republican candidates.  There was a photo of Roger Bush, a weak Republican incumbent for County Council standing next to Rossi; there were photos of Randi Becker with Rossi on TV.  Rossi/BIAW chose to spend campaign dollars in ways that tremendously benefited down-ticket Republican candidates.

The Congressional race

Again, there were little or no coattails for Burner.  Too many people voted for Obama and then turned around and voted for Reichert. Name familiarity? Not a problem in 2008. Burner had more money than Reichert.  Usually more money and being well-known works. But in fact, more people voted for Reichert this time in Pierce County than in the same race in 2006 when Darcy was less well known and had less money.

This suggests that it wasn't the right "story" being told by the Burner campaign.  Darcy, the challenger, had to convince people that they'd made a mistake twice before; that Reichert wasn't who they thought he was, or that he'd changed.

The emotional tone of the challenge should have been different than it was, I think.  I've been reading "The Political Brain" by Drew Westen. I know Darcy worked really hard (I saw it first-hand).  But the story being told in Pierce County didn't resonate here, and it wasn't until I read Westen's work that I began to understand why.  From what I know about her, stories could have been told that would have worked. Read Westen and see if you don't agree.

For example, apparently Darcy's internal polling showed she was a bit ahead right up to the last week of the campaign.  Then, however, the attacks about Darcy having or not having an Economics degree of some sort from Harvard gained traction and Independents started switching over to Reichert.  Historically in Pierce County (with a long tradition of mostly absentee voting as well as some poll voting), about 45% of the absentee ballots have been returned by Nov 1. That meant 55% of the absentee ballots were yet to be sent in, and those voters were impacted by that late-breaking attack.

The response to the Economics degree kerfuffle didn't work well in Pierce County.  People don't identify with her being a Harvard graduate; it made her seem "elitist" as well as a liar. (She's not but too many voters didn't see that she's not.  College graduate is okay, but Harvard?! We're happy out here to graduate from Green River Community College, Pierce College, UofW, and WSU. Harvard is not something we can aspire to. Unfair this is; but...) Past history in the 31st suggests that a quick apology and admission that she'd mis-spoke (whether true or not is irrelevant here) might have deflected the controversy.  Christopher Hurst was embroiled in a "gotcha" over something he'd written (in an earlier campaign).  He went on a local talk radio show and simply said he was sorry he'd written it; it was wrong; and he wouldn't do it again if he had it to do over; he'd learned his lesson.  The electorate were satisfied and the attack failed.

Ranked Choice Voting

RCV did not help Democrats.  It did introduce considerable emotional turmoil.  Many people voted on the regular ballot - we had high voter turnout this year - but thousands did not turn the RCV ballot in at all.  Of those who turned it in, many voted in the County Executive race but not in the others.  Many voters treated the RCV ballot as if it were a regular ballot.  They voted for only one candidate rather than voting for a second and then a third choice. With no primary, the Democrats also had no chance to come together after the inevitable pulling apart when there are multiple good Democrats running for the same seat. The party was thus weakened and not unified for the November election.

Going Forward

  1. We need to implement the lessons of "The Political Brain". Voters don't vote by coolly assessing which candidate will best serve their interests using the rational part of their brains.  Voters vote emotionally; they vote for the person they like (and they generally like their incumbent); they vote for who they can identify with.   Republicans seem to know that.  We're still getting beat when we emphasize "issues" (rationality) instead of "values" (emotions). We can learn to talk about our issues emotionally and empathically.
  2. We need to respond quickly and well to all charges against us.
  3. We could benefit from strategically coordinating upper ticket campaigns with lower ticket campaigns
  4. Top ticket GOTV efforts need to consider the greater good of the party and whether what they do will help or hurt down-ticket Democrats.

Feel free to contact me directly if you have questions or comments.


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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Allen published on April 20, 2009 6:06 PM.

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