Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Washington is not the new Florida

Poll-centric blogger Nate Silver published a post a few hours ago on his New York Times blog trying to make sense out of the many polls that have been conducted in our U.S. Senate race, and reminding his readers that our electoral process is different from other states because we vote almost entirely by mail.

What bothered me most about the post is not so much the content, but the headline. Silver's analysis doesn't justify the title that he gave his post. What he's basically trying to say is that Washington is an important bellwether state this cycle, but his choice of words seems to suggest that our Senate race will be close and that ballot-counting will be messy before a victor becomes apparent.

Which is funny, because that's what I remember pundits saying about the 2008 gubernatorial rematch between Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi.

It was guaranteed to be close, the belief was, simply because Rossi had come so close in 2004, and challenged the election in court.

But it wasn't close. At all.

We knew that night that Chris Gregoire was the winner, and Rossi conceded the next morning, fading from the political scene for a year and a half.

When a friend or journalist asks me to analyze a race, I don't rush to the computer screen to find out what the latest polls say. I prefer to look at electoral history for insight. And electoral history has shown that Patty Murray has repeatedly triumphed after being underestimated by the pundits and by Republicans.

It was said that she couldn't win in 1992. She did. It was said that she couldn't win in 1998. She did. It was said that she couldn't win in 2004. She did.

If those past victories are any indication, Patty Murray is going to win again, and will be gracing the front covers of state newspapers on November 3rd with a big smile, having defeated Dino Rossi by a comfortable margin. This isn't a prediction by me; it's just simple probability. I don't need a poll to tell me that incumbents usually win, no matter how hostile the political climate is.

In the last decade or so, we've had one extremely close gubernatorial race (2004) and one very close senatorial race (2000). There was no Democratic incumbent in either of those contests, however. No Democratic incumbent has been bested in a statewide race in Washington since before I became an activist. The last Republican to be elected to the U.S. Senate in Washington was Slade Gorton in 1994. He defeated then-future King County Executive Ron Sims, 56% to 44%, and was narrowly ousted by Maria Cantwell just before the turn of the century.

I bring all this up because I don't think polls tell the whole story. Pundits and poll aficionados like Silver love sifting data so much that they can't resist playing with numbers, even if the research that produced those numbers is suspect.

(Markos Moulitsas, who is a fan of Nate's, found out the hard way that polling isn't always reliable or accurate. A few months ago, he got burned badly by the now-defunct Research 2000, which he promptly sued for generating bogus data.)

Even if our Senate race turns out to be extremely close, it's unfair to say that "Washington is the new Florida". If the Murray/Rossi race drags into December, we're not going to be hearing about butterfly ballots or hanging chads. Nor are we going to hear about mishaps at King County Elections, which has modernized its operations and significantly beefed up security.

State law is very clear on what happens in the event of a very tight race. There's an automatically triggered machine recount of our paper ballots, and then a hand recount, if the losing side wishes to put up the money to pay for it. The victor of the hand recount gets certified as the winner.

But again, the chances of the Senate contest being as close as the 2004 gubernatorial contest was are low. Dino Rossi isn't a fresh face running for an open seat. He's a known quantity who is campaigning on the failed policies of the past. Washingtonians didn't endorse his extreme right wing agenda when Bush was running, and we're no more likely to this year.


Blogger Bill R. said...

Now that Nate Silver has joined the paid punditocracy, he has to create a headline where there is none. He's in the business of infotainment now. When he was the blogger, Poblano, he had more credibility. Washington, like "Florida 2000", juicy but stupid. The latest public television poll out this morning says Murray wins by 6 among LVs. I think that will be about the margin. Not even close.

October 29, 2010 7:23 AM  

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