Few were surprised on November 3rd when reliably blue Washington was called for the Democrats. But what was only beginning to become clear that night was how geographically broad of a Democratic shift Biden-Harris achieved here.
With a few exceptions, Biden-Harris improved on Clinton-Kaine’s margin in almost every region of Washington, including in thirty-five out of thirty-nine counties.
The ticket’s most notable drop came in historically Democratic Cowlitz County. But in urban, rural, suburban and extra-urban areas across the state, Biden-Harris made improvements on Clinton-Kaine’s 2016 margins.
What brought the 2020 Democratic ticket their success?
Seattle is one of the bluest cities in the country and the Republican Party is virtually dead there. Like in 2016, Trump did not come close to winning a single precinct in Seattle. But for all of Trump’s problems in the Emerald City, Biden-Harris barely improved on the party’s 2016 victory there: the ticket’s winning margin in Seattle was only around two points higher than in 2016.
Nationally, there has been a lot of discussion (and there will surely be more of it) on Biden and Harris’ electoral performance.
The Democratic ticket made small improvements or lost ground in some big cities, while making large gains in the suburbs. Biden-Harris won Georgia thanks in no small part to gargantuan Democratic shifts in suburban Atlanta and flipped Pennsylvania thanks partially to large winning margins in suburban Philadelphia.
The ticket’s improvements in the Seattle suburbs, particularly on the Eastside and North King County, do partially explain how the Democrats had the largest victory in Washington of any presidential candidate since 1964.
But some of the biggest movements towards Biden-Harris in the Evergreen State were not in suburbia or Martin Luther King Jr. County.
From Spokane to Vancouver to Walla Walla to Bellingham, small and mid-sized cities outside of King County were instrumental. They helped the ticket improve on Clinton-Kaine’s margin and score a nineteen-point victory in Washington.
Biden-Harris made large gains in Spokane.
While Clinton-Kaine won Washington’s second largest city by eleven points in 2016, the 2020 ticket brought the margin up to seventeen points, which helped shave Trump’s victory in Spokane County from nine points to four.
Spokane was not the only city east of the Cascades to shift to Biden-Harris.
Yakima voted for Trump by four points in 2016. It voted for Biden-Harris by nearly four points this year. Clinton won Walla Walla by under two points in 2016, but Biden-Harris won the city by almost ten, bringing the ticket closer to victory in Walla Walla County than any Democratic candidate since 1996. Wenatchee voted for Trump by around nine points in 2016 but narrowly voted (D) this year.
From the Canadian border to the Oregon border, Biden-Harris saw success in small and mid-sized Western Washington cities as well.
The 2020 ticket turned Clinton-Kaine’s thirty-seven-point victory in Tacoma into a forty-two-point victory, helping reverse Pierce County’s continual Republican drift in presidential elections. Biden-Harris improved on Clinton’s twenty-five-point margin in Everett, winning it by over thirty points.
Further up I‑5, Biden-Harris won Bellingham by a whopping sixty points, improving on Clinton-Kaine’s fifty-three-point victory there.
Down I‑5, Biden-Harris won Vancouver by twenty-two points, improving on Clinton-Kaine’s sixteen-point victory there. In short, all over Washington, medium and small cities were bad news for Trump.
The shift of small and mid-sized cities towards Biden-Harris is not unique to Washington. South of the Columbia River, Trump became the first Republican to lose Deschutes County, home of Bend, since 1992.
The phenomenon is not unique to the Northwest either. Pick any state Biden-Harris flipped, and there are small and mid-sized cities, from Flagstaff to Eau Claire to Scranton, that were instrumental to the Democratic victory.
Why have small and mid-sized cities moved towards the Democrats?
There are a few likely factors.
It is well known that America’s political divide is an urban-rural one, and Washington has not been spared of this polarization. Higher population density usually makes places less Republican. Even tiny towns, like Pomeroy and Soap Lake, usually vote slightly more Democratic than the areas that surround them.
Education is another likely factor, as most cities, be they big or small, have more residents with college degrees. Some of small and mid-sized cities in Washington are anchored by their universities, like Walla Walla, Bellingham and Olympia.
It is unclear whether this phenomenon will continue at its current pace or if it was just a result of Trump and the bizarre 2020 election. Like the rest of the nation, down-ballot Democrats, including Jay Inslee underperformed Biden-Harris overall, though many small and mid-sized cities still shifted towards Inslee this year.
Regardless, the phenomenon should cause alarm among Washington Republicans.
They already need to stop their continual horrific showings in Seattle’s suburbs and cannot afford to lose ground anywhere in the state.
But there is a lot of room for them to fall in small and mid-sized cities, and those losses could easily offset their gains elsewhere.
For instance, there were over 30,000 more voters in Vancouver this year than there were in Cowlitz County. There were more Trump voters in Everett than there were total voters in Grays Harbor County, which has remained reliably Republican since Clinton utterly collapsed there in 2016.
If the Republican brand becomes toxic in small and mid-sized cities like it already has in Seattle and some of its suburbs, the floodgates will continue to open for Democrats up and down the ballot.
This shift could also make Eastern and Central Washington substantially more Democratic. Yakima and Spokane Counties could conceivably become blue.
The Republicans may even have trouble keeping their already diminishing number of legislative seats if Democrats can run up the score in places like Yakima.
This may seem far-fetched today, but Biden-Harris made healthy cuts into Trump’s margin in many Eastern and Central Washington legislative districts.
For instance, Trump won Washington’s 15th Legislative District, which contains part of Yakima, by nine points in 2016. This year his margin of victory fell to under six points. Incumbent Republican Legislators Bruce Chandler and Jeremie Dufault both won the district easily this year, but if cities like Yakima continue to move towards the Democrats on the presidential level, districts like the 15th could move to the Democrats at the legislative level as well.
Downballot Republican incumbents could absolutely fall victim to this trend, particularly if there is another blue wave cycle. Just ask Joe Fain or Mark Miloscia.
Washington is a mostly urban and educated state.
The Washington State Republican Party needs to form an identity separate from the national Republican Party and must change its tone if it wants to stop Washington’s drift towards a true one-party state.
With each election, Seattle and its suburbs become more lost to the Republicans. Trump’s horrible performance in Washington’s smaller cities is just one more piece of dreadful news for the Republicans in their fight to remain relevant in the state.
Editor’s Note: McCauley Pugh is an Associate Analyst at Lake Research Partners. He is originally from Federal Way. He studied Politics and International Relations and Italian Studies at University College Dublin and has an MSc in Comparative Politics with a specialism in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to working at LRP, McCauley worked for The Mellman Group and was an intern for U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell.