Numbers have had a rough go in politics lately. After 2016, many observers are intensely skeptical of polls and other quantitative metrics. Relying too much on numbers can give election watchers tunnel vision, but a greater danger lies in the opposite: trusting the numbers too little.
Despite conventional wisdom, this is precisely what occurred in 2016. Polling averages showed a tight race in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. But Democrats mentally dismissed Trump’s best polls, often making excuses or pointing to additional factors that went unaccounted for in polling that would deliver a Clinton win. Democrats run the risk of making the same mistake in Washington following the Washington primary.
The Evergreen State held its jungle primary (where all candidates regardless of party run together) last week and the GOP had a strong night. Most notably, incumbent Democrat Kim Schrier is not even receiving 44% of the vote in the state’s 8th Congressional District.
This result has caused much discussion in political circles. On paper, a close result in this district makes no sense. WA-08 takes in much of suburban Seattle, as well as some rural areas, with Obama and Clinton both having won it by single digits. Republican Dave Reichert held the district for years but his retirement before 2018 opened up the seat. In 2018, Democrat Kim Schrier won the seat over Republican Dino Rossi.
Given the national environment, Schrier should be cruising to re-election; Elections Daily had the race at Safe Democratic. But the results tell a different story. She received under 44% of the vote, with Democrats overall totaling under 48%. Because these results are seemingly impossible to square with the national environment, many Democrats have dismissed the primary as not being predictive of what will happen in November. But the evidence shows they do this at their peril.
Why Democrats Should be Concerned
Primary results in Washinton tend to be very predictive of the November environment. In 2016 and 2018, Democrats saw their vote share increase an average of .7% from the primary to the general election. They increased their vote share .6% between the two elections in WA-08 in 2016. In 2018, it increased by 2.2%. This cycle is unlikely to buck the trend. The primary turnout in Washington was tremendously high, making it more reflective of the general election electorate, not less. In fact, the total primary votes in the 8th district are equal to 77% of Washington’s total vote in the 2016 general election.
It is true that Democrats in California often see their vote share jump significantly between the primary and general elections, but this is due to demographic factors. The primary electorate is much older and whiter than the general electorate. No such phenomenon exists in Washington.
However, Democrats have pushed back against the notion that these results are indicative of November. Many have pointed out that Kim Schrier’s likely opponent, Republican Jesse Jansen, has virtually no fundraising or cash on hand. But this is not a true barrier to his candidacy for two reasons.
For starters, this result will almost certainly lead to an influx of cash and attention for Jansen. Donors and parties respond to queues like this when deciding what races to target. Secondly, if this money disparity is going to skew the results towards Schrier, this should have been reflected in the primary results. Because the primary is for all candidates and all voters, the vote totals already take into account things like fundraising and name recognition. This is part of the reason why Washington primary results are so predictive of November results. Even in districts with long-time incumbents who have lopsided fundraising advantages, parties’ vote share rarely changes significantly from the primary results.
Why it Happened
There is no clear explanation for why this has occurred. Polls continue to point to a strong national environment for Democrats, especially in suburban areas. Primaries as well have shown strong results. On the same night as Washington held its primary, Arizonans went to the polls. In that state, the partisan breakdown of primary voters was more favorable to Democrats than it has been at any time in recent history.
Given this, it is unlikely that the results in the Washington primary signal a hidden Trump vote or a shifting national environment. There simply isn’t enough data to support that conclusion. But it is possible, for one reason or another, that the GOP is simply experiencing a surge in Washington.
This could be due to Democratic complacency. With their eyes and money elsewhere, they forgot the district was only Clinton +3 in 2016. Furthermore, Clinton only managed 54% statewide in Washington, comparable to the vote share Donald Trump got in Texas. Despite having some of King County, WA-08’s suburbs are also less dense and less educated than some people think. Perhaps Democrats got too confident because the district is “suburban” and dropped the ball. It’s also possible that the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, also know as C.H.A.Z, caused a backlash in some areas of Washington.
The President’s law and order rhetoric has clearly fallen flat in most of the country, largely because Americans do not see the recent protests as violent or troubling. But maybe this is different in Seattle. C.H.A.Z received extensive coverage for its takeover of the area surrounding a Seattle police precinct. This coverage was decidedly more negative and less sympathetic than coverage of other protests. Parties representing law and order typically benefit when voters feel there is a chaos that needs control. Maybe the coverage of C.H.A.Z. created this feeling for some Washington voters.
Looking to November
Again, it’s important to remember that Clinton only won this district 48-45 in 2016. Every cycle, there are flips that go against the grain. In 2014 it was Brad Ashford and Gwen Graham. In 2018 it was Pete Stauber and Jim Hagedorn. Maybe Kim Schrier will fall asleep at the wheel this year and Jesse Jansen pulls off that upset.
If she is currently sleepwalking her re-election campaign, these results should wake her up. Across Washington, Democrats underperformed. Even Governor Jay Inslee barely sits above 50%. In the gubernatorial race as a whole, Democrats have mustered only 53% combined, a lower share than they acquired in the 2016 Gubernatorial primary.
There is no other way to parse these results – they’re below expectations for Democrats, and the party needs to take them seriously. It may not be easy to explain why the results are what they are, but that doesn’t mean Democrats can dismiss what they are. The party needs to take a long, hard look at what happened and change course before it surprises them in November.