Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Backseat Driving In the Governor's Race

A lot of people were surprised by Governor Gregoire's decisive win over Dino Rossi on election night. I knew the trends looked favorable at the time but, like everyone else, I was mentally preparing myself for another close contest. In the end, Gregoire won by six points, 53% to 47%, and the race was decided on election night.

The difference from 2004 to 2008 was significant. In 2004 the race was a statistical tie: Gregoire 49% to Rossi 49% (there was a Libertarian on the general election ballot that year). Four years later, Gregoire increased her vote share by 4% and Rossi lost 2% of his vote share.

Pundits have been trying to explain this change in fortunes and various theories have been advanced. There seems to be a consensus around several themes.

> Gregoire benefited from Obama's popularity or perhaps, more importantly, Bush's unpopularity.

Washington state exit polls published by CNN showed that a whopping 73% of the electorate disapproves of how George Bush is handling his job, and Gregoire carried these voters 69-28%. CNN also reported that voters who were "very" worried about the economy (45% of the electorate) gave Gregoire a 63-34% advantage; and voters who disapproved of the war in Iraq (61% of the electorate) gave Gregoire a 76-22% advantage.

Part if this is simply because Washington state is trending more Democratic, and this trend has been obvious for a while. In the October edition of the Elway Report, pollster Stuart Elway wrote "once known as a independent and swing state, Washington has been turning darker blue with each election cycle... Over the last 8 years, the Washington electorate has become more partisan and more Democrat... This year Democrats extended their advantage to 14 points over Republicans..."

Conservative blogger Eric Earling touched on this same theme. "In 2004, Rossi won voters earning $50-75k a year 58-41%. He likewise won voters earning $75-100k by a 50-47% margin," Earling wrote. "This year, those same groups went against him 47-50% and 40-57% respectively. That's a 20% swing in the margin in both income brackets, constituting the heart of the middle class. Those demographics are exactly who has been most adversely affected by declines in the housing market and the savaging of 401(k) accounts. It puts the electoral challenge facing a Republican near the top of the ticket in even clearer focus. And there's not a... thing Rossi could have done about that."

In his post-election analysis, pollster Elway wrote that "a 'blue tide' started to rise in Washington long before Barack Obama got the nomination... Bush was good for Democratic unity, and Obama's candidacy accelerated a trend..."

"Given the blue tide, Rossi understandably tried to downplay his Republican ties, which led to lots of talk about Obama/Rossi voters," continued Elway. "They turned out to be like Sasquatch — a powerful myth, a couple of sightings, but no scientific evidence. Obama/Rossi voters comprised 4 percent of our October sample, but McCain/Gregoire voters comprised 3 percent."

> Gregoire had a winning message.

In a widely distributed post-election memo to supporters, Kelly Evans, Gregoire's campaign manager, wrote "Dino Rossi made it clear in several public forums that he was out of step with Washingtonians on important economic issues. He said he wanted to establish a lower minimum wage, to decrease unemployment benefits and give a tax break to the wealthiest 1 percent of Washingtonians. In these tough economic [times], voters clearly want someone who is going to fight for them and their families... [O]ur state chose a work horse who is a leader with a proven record and a person who shares the values of Washington voters."

Evans isn't alone in saying that Gregoire won the "values" debate. Liberal blogger David Goldstein argued "Gregoire not only ran a better campaign, her winning strategy was exemplified by her much maligned ads attacking Dino Rossi for opposing embryonic stem cell research... In effect, these stem cell ads defined Rossi as too conservative for Washington, along the lines of Ellen Craswell and John Carlson."

"Indeed, this values theme was repeated throughout Gov. Gregoire’s paid media, for example, on the issues of education and children’s health care," Goldstein continued. "Even on the issue of our state’s projected multi-billion dollar revenue shortfall, the Gregoire campaign focused on her pro-children values, emphasizing that Rossi attempted to cut health care for 40,000 children while the Governor expanded the rolls, and that Gregoire had increased spending on education while Rossi’s transportation spending proposal would come at the expense of our schools. Who do you best trust to balance our budget, Gregoire asked, leaving it to voters to choose the candidate who best represented their values."

More important than the stem cell issue was the minimum wage argument. Rossi told a business group he was willing to consider lowering the minimum wage and it became a defining issue in the campaign. In her post-election press conference, as reported in the Seattle Times, Gregoire said she thought the minimum wage issue was a turning point in her re-election campaign. "When [Rossi] started talking about considering lowering the minimum wage, that affected every working man and woman, working family in the state," Gregoire said. "I think that spoke loudly to the differences between Dino and myself... and we began seeing in our own internal polls that there was a change that happened as a result of that." Conservative blogger Earling agreed, saying "...consistent attacks against Rossi on the minimum wage left a mark, dovetailing with bigger concerns about the economy..."

Polling supports the notion that voters perceived Gregoire to be more in line with their own values. "By the end of the campaign, Rossi was seen as conservative by two-thirds of voters," wrote pollster Elway. "Gregoire was seen by voters as moderate to liberal — the place to be in Washington. Gregoire also had an edge among voters who cared most about 'values.'"

The bottom line: According to CNN's exit poll, 41% of the Washington state electorate describes themselves as "moderate," and moderates supported Gregoire 59-37% over Rossi.

> The overwhelming barrage of negative advertising probably hurt Rossi more than it helped.

In her memo, campaign manager Evans stated "Dino Rossi and his friends at the BIAW, Republican Governor’s Association, State Republican Party and Washington Association of Realtors spent an unprecedented amount of money on misleading, negative attacks and it backfired."

This sentiment was echoed by some conservatives. "...[T]he sheer volume of negative attacks by the RGA and the BIAW created a unique problem for Rossi," Earling wrote. "The success of his 2004 campaign was largely a function of his upbeat, forward-thinking message. Many of his campaign's ads in 2008 replicated that theme with skill. Nonetheless, many voters don't differentiate between ads from campaigns and ads from independent entities... The cumulative negativity of anti-Gregoire ads rubbed off on Rossi in public perception, while also creating a more crowded media environment that complicated his campaign's ability to embed their message."

In the ultimate irony, Gregoire actually won with voters who saw all these negative ads. According to pollster Elway, "Gregoire had a 13-point advantage among voters who saw ads from both campaigns."

In spite of all the negativity, voters are generally happy with Gregoire. "...[O]ver the past four years Washington voters have come to know Gov. Gregoire… not as well as they should have, but well enough," liberal blogger Goldstein said. "And as it so happens, it turned out she wasn’t too liberal, she didn’t ignore Eastern Washington, and apart from the gas and estate taxes—both approved overwhelmingly at the polls—Gregoire didn’t raise our taxes." Pollster Elway agreed. "...[V]oters have been generally satisfied the functioning of state government on Gregoire's watch...," he wrote. "Her ratings in June of this year were comparable to Gary Locke's in June of his re-election year."

Rossi and his allies were never able to convince voters that Gregoire was doing a bad job. After polling on the issue a couple of times, Elway concluded "...Gregoire won on likability. Likability was seen as a relative advantage for her over Rossi among persuadable voters in September. Her 'personal characteristics and qualities' were rated higher than his in October."

As Elway concluded, "any election is largely a referendum on the incumbent. Beating an incumbent is almost always difficult. The voters must be dissatisfied with the current office holder and the challenger must win the campaign. Neither of these conditions took place this year."

> The Gregoire and Obama campaigns combined were an overwhelming force on the ground.

Possibly the Gregoire's campaigns greatest tactical asset was the ability to combine forces with the Obama campaign and the state Democratic Party into one huge field program. According to campaign manager Evans, the combined field program "organized more volunteers and talked to more voters than any campaign in modern Washington political history."

"While the 2004 campaign was hindered by a late contested primary," Evans noted, "Gov. Gregoire’s 2008 campaign began working with the state Democratic Party nearly two years ago to prepare for this year. From February through Election Day, the Gregoire campaign also fostered a strong relationship with the Obama campaign. Together, the overall coordinated campaign orchestrated an unprecedented GOTV program. Volunteers operating out of 22 offices across the state made two million phone calls to voters and knocked on almost one million doors since June. 600,000 of these phone calls were in the final three weeks of the campaign."

The Governor also benefited from focused and organized field and member education efforts waged by her coalition partners. According to Evans, the Gregoire campaign "saw the results [of efforts by allies] in our polling. Four weeks before the election, we were losing public school parents by 11 points – two weeks prior, we were winning by a point. Same is true for union households, a move from +12 to +27 in just three weeks."

> In conclusion, maybe none of us should have been surprised by Gregoire's decisive victory.

"Gov. Gregoire’s resounding victory may have caught the media off guard, but you should know that we were confident that our hard work, clear message and extensive field operation would carry the day," campaign manager Evans stated. "In fact, our internal polling had Gov. Gregoire leading by nine points in the final weekend. In both public and private polling, we saw our lead steadily expand beginning about three weeks out from Election Day, right around the time that ballots were mailed and voters started to pay more attention to the race."

Pollster Elway agreed. "The Washington governor's race came to a mercifully quick end this year, leaving pundits and reporters, who had talked all year about what a close race this was, stunned and bewildered," he wrote. "They shouldn't be. It never was going to be a close race."

Of course, every pundit who ever picked up a newspaper has a theory. The good news is that Gregoire won and the election is over. As Gregoire said, the day after the election, "do you know how nice it was to wake up this morning and see no ads?" I think we all agree. -- Dennis

PS: I'll let Seattle P-I editorial cartoonist David Horsey have the final word:

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