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Did high turnout in south county make the key difference?

[BY S. SALMI | EXPANDED JAN. 1]

Did the Democratic county commission candidates lose because of high south county voter turnout? Emmett O’Connell of Olympia Time tried to answer this question by comparing voter turnout in 2016 with the previous three election cycles. You’ll want to read his entire analysis here, but the short answer is that turnout was elevated in the south county.

This led me to ask a follow-up question: Did the unincorporated parts of the county represent an unusually large proportion of the electorate in 2016 compared to 2008, which was a high-turnout year when Democrats did particularly well?

Nope. In 2016, Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater represented 43.6 percent of votes cast for the District 2 county commission race; this was 2.5 percent higher than in 2008. Meanwhile, the share of the vote that came from the small cities of Bucoda, Rainier, Rochester, Tenino and Yelm was .4 percent higher in 2016. These gains came at the expense of unincorporated areas, which saw their proportion of the total vote drop from 54.9 percent in 2008 to only 52.1 percent in 2016. That’s a meaningful drop — and counter-intuitive if turnout was unusually high in the south county.

According to Ken Balsley, Democratic incumbent Sandra Romero was one of those dreaded north-county urban liberals who was out of touch with the needs of rural Thurston County. Yet in 2008 she was reelected to her District 2 seat with almost 60 percent of the vote — even though the tri-cities made up a smaller portion of the electorate than in 2016.

What’s up with that? It’s true that Romero did well almost across the board, losing only in Rainier, Rochester and Yelm — which are typical conservative strongholds. However, she also generated a healthy 55.2 percent in unincorporated parts of the county. This is in sharp contrast to Kelsey Hulse, who in the 2016 race for the District 2 seat received less than 40 percent.

Secretary of state candidate Tina Podlodowski was the only state-level Democrat who polled more poorly in Thurston than county commission candidate Kelsey Hulse, according to elections data.

I’ve added 2012 data to show that 2008 was not an anomaly. The proportion of total votes by jurisdictions was quite stable between these two elections. Olympia saw the biggest change — a .7 percent drop — but the tri-cities still totaled 41.3 percent. Romero won in 2012 by a 2.8 percent lower margin but it was still close to landslide status: almost 57 percent. Her margin in unincorporated precincts fell 3.6 percent but she won 51.6 percent.

What the data suggests is that urban Democrats will not win a county commission seat unless they are reasonably competitive in unincorporated parts of the county — which even in a high-turnout, Democratic wave election like 2008 represent the majority of votes. Romero illustrates how a Democrat can consistently win in rural parts of the county.

Of course, as O’Connell has pointed out, a Democrat does not have to win in the rural Thurston in order to take the county as a whole. You just need to rack up enough votes in the urban north. As a case in point, in 2016 governor Jay Inslee received 49.4 percent in unincorporated Thurston but still garnered 54.9 percent countywide. Democratic public lands commissioner candidate Hilary Franz did only 1 percent worse despite being the executive director of that flaming commie group Futurewise.

This year Democratic county commission candidates vastly underperformed the rest of the ticket in both rural and urban parts of the county. For example, as discussed here, neither Hulse nor kindred spirit Jim Cooper did very well in Lacey or Tumwater.

This is why I suspect that something more was going on than high turnout in the south county. Steve Klein may be at least partially right — Donald Trump had coattails.

Olympia Time commentator James Haynes argues that this is absurd because county commission candidates Gary Edwards and John Hutchings both polled significantly better than Trump. This is true, but at least at the national level “Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree is the largest among any candidate in exit polls since 1980,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Might this at least partially explain why Lacey and Tumwater saw their proportion of total votes jump 2.5 percent over 2008 while Olympia went down by .1 percent?

At least with the District 2 race, one factor was that Edwards had high name recognition whereas Hulse was brand-new to local politics. However, that argument can’t be made for Hutchings, who arguably had less name recognition than Cooper, a current Olympia city council member. Cooper polled only 2 percent better than Hulse and also lost in Lacey and Tumwater (albeit barely).

Long-time Republican leader Sam Reed told The Olympian that part of what happened was the Democratically controlled county commission had “gone a little too far in particular in terms of land use items, and it’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way.” Reporter Lisa Pemberton then described conservative complaints, such as commission action to protect the pocket gopher, the time it takes a building permit to be processed, and a proposed septic fee. No counterbalancing responses were included.

These are rural issues. As a case in point, Lacey voters don’t have a direct stake in the pocket gopher debate. That’s partly why Romero could rack up such high margins in that city.

Indeed, Hulse did not need to receive one single more vote in unincorporated Thurston or its small cities in order to win as long as she tallied roughly the same margins in the tri-cities as Romero did in 2008. (Note that Romero’s lower 2012 margins wouldn’t have been enough.)

None of this context showed up in The Olympian article. Of course, you can blame that on the mediocre quality of that paper’s electoral coverage. But it still begs the question: Where are the countervailing narratives — at least aside from O’Connell’s astute blog?

Simply put, county-level Democratic leaders and their green allies have not done as good of a job as their opponents in framing policy issues. How else can you explain Franz doing considerably better than either Hulse or Cooper in both the tri-cities as well as rural Thurston County?


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PHOTOS: By Olympia, Earth Images

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