NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, December 6th, 2020

Cities outside of King County powered Biden-Harris’ historic victory in Washington State

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.

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  1. Inter­est­ing angle on the elec­tion. I found it more inter­est­ing that twen­ty-six coun­ties in Wash­ing­ton vot­ed for Trump while only thir­teen vot­ed for Biden. Now that is interesting! 

    I don’t think that indi­cates a blue wave, only as usu­al the pop­u­lous cities con­trol the rur­al areas… maybe do a sto­ry on that.

    # by Janell Wildermuth :: December 6th, 2020 at 8:46 PM
    • The twen­ty-six coun­ties that vot­ed for Trump rep­re­sent a tiny slice of the state’s pop­u­la­tion, Janell. Many of the small coun­ties have few­er peo­ple than a sin­gle neigh­bor­hood in Seat­tle, Taco­ma, Van­cou­ver, or Spokane. If you look at a car­togram instead of a tra­di­tion­al elec­toral map, then you can visu­al­ly see just how dom­i­nant the Democ­rats were. No Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial tick­et has done this well in Wash­ing­ton in over fifty years.

      As for the dynam­ics of urban vs. rur­al, both areas need each oth­er. The pop­u­lous areas of the state are home to more vot­ers, but they also export tax dol­lars to the rur­al areas (and the rur­al areas in turn pow­er the food sys­tem the urban areas rely on). It is a fact that small coun­ties in East­ern and Cen­tral Wash­ing­ton would quick­ly col­lapse with­out the finan­cial sup­port of tax­pay­ers in larg­er coun­ties like King and Pierce. Your char­ac­ter­i­za­tion about the rur­al areas being under the con­trol of urban areas is incor­rect: the rur­al areas of this state actu­al­ly have out­size polit­i­cal pow­er con­sid­er­ing how few peo­ple live there. 

      # by Andrew Villeneuve :: December 7th, 2020 at 7:21 PM
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