One year ago today, I wrote what might just be one of my favorite posts in the history of this publication: a lengthy electoral analysis titled: “Why the 2022 midterms in Washington State could look more like 2018 than 2010 or 2014.”
Given that we’ve reached the anniversary of that post’s publication, it seems like an opportune time to reflect back on it, since it set the stage for the electoral analysis that NPI offered continuously throughout 2022.
The impetus for that January 28th, 2022 post was a survey conducted by Elway Research published by Crosscut that purported to show a “Republican surge” in Washington State. Our team examined Elway’s data, then compared it to our own and that of SurveyUSA/KING5’s. We concluded that there was no “Republican surge” and flagged some of the issues with Elway’s survey samples that led us to conclude they might not be properly representative of the electorate.
After discussing those issues, I offered the following outlook for the midterms:
We know from decades of research that elections turn on identity and trust. That’s no less true in highly polarized times. People are ultimately going to fill in the oval for who they identify with. They won’t be voting on the basis of gas prices, or inflation concerns, or foreign policy, or some set of issue positions.
Current events and ideology do matter and do influence people’s thinking. They just aren’t the decisive factors that drive voting behavior. Identity and trust are.
Unless Republicans can convince more Washington voters to trust them, they are going to stay at a disadvantage statewide and in a lot of crucially important suburban and exurban legislative districts. And that would mean that they’re not going to have the kind of pickups they had in 2010 or 2014.
Because Democrats have mostly run out of suburban and exurban pickup opportunities, the party will primarily be on defense this year, though it will try to go on offense in the redrawn 26th, 10th, 17th, and 42nd Legislative Districts.
The stage seems set for a cycle with election results that will look more like the 2018 midterms than either 2010 or 2014 in Washington.
“The stage seems set for a cycle with election results that will look more like the 2018 midterms than either 2010 or 2014 in Washington,” I wrote one year ago.
And that’s exactly what happened:
- Senator Patty Murray was overwhelmingly reelected
- Representative Kim Schrier secured reelection by a bigger margin than 2020
- Democrats flipped WA-03 with Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez
- Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, the first Democratic Secretary of State in decades, was retained in his position by Washingtonians
- Voters sent a twenty-nine member Senate Democratic majority to Olympia, up from twenty-eight in 2018 and 2020
- Voters sent a fifty-eight member House Democratic majority to Olympia, up from fifty-seven in 2018 and 2020
Democrats’ legislative gains (Sharon Shewmake’s Senate victory, Clyde Shavers’ House victory) came in the redrawn 42nd and 10th Legislative Districts, two of the four targeted districts that I mentioned in my post.
“The stage seems set for a cycle with election results that will look more like the 2018 midterms than either 2010 or 2014 in Washington.”
Those words sound prophetic now, but at at the time, the 2022 legislative session wasn’t even halfway over, the horrific leaked Dobbs decision had yet to be handed down by the Supreme Court, and the August Top Two and November general elections had not been held. It was early in the year and we hadn’t even put our first statewide poll of 2022 into the field yet — that would happen in February.
What we did have was plenty of sound data from our third and fourth quarter 2021 surveys. We had polled at multiple levels — statewide and local — and from those surveys, we could see that Democrats in Washington were in relatively good shape despite constant talk of a “red wave” that got louder as the year went on.
The results of the 2021 local elections, which went really well for Democrats and progressives overall, also suggested that Washington voters could recommit to Democratic governance in 2022’s legislative and congressional elections.
It isn’t possible to know the future and we have often remarked here on the Cascadia Advocate that our team doesn’t possess working crystal balls. But it is possible to keep an open mind about the future and to break free of groupthink. It’s something we’ve tried to do here at NPI ever since our inception in 2003.
Way too much political analysis nowadays seems to be generated by forming a conclusion about what’s going to happen and then working backwards from there to find evidence supporting that conclusion. (Sometimes, no evidence is offered, just conjecture by those who like to go by hunches rather than data.)
Our approach is different. We begin by recognizing we do not know the future and that elections are decided by voters, not pundits. Rather than assuming an election will follow some historical trend (e.g. the president’s party always loses seats in a midterm) or relying on what I fondly like to call the predictions and ratings racket, we imagine as many outcomes and scenarios as we can.
Our mantra is anything is possible.
To ascertain what is probable, plausible, and likely, we put our faith and confidence in credible data. We have been commissioning our own public opinion research at NPI for ten years now, but we also enthusiastically follow the work of other reputable nonprofits and polling firms that are committed to the scientific method like us, and asking neutral questions of representative samples.
A lot of polling is done at the national level, sponsored by big media and national political organizations. Polls at the state level are rarer, and polls at the local level are much rarer. Yet polling at those levels can be truly invaluable, illuminating the thinking of voters in places where legislative majorities are made, and enabling explorations of local angles on important issues. It’s not possible to properly examine local angles on issues in a statewide or national poll. Conversely, though, national and state level concerns can be part of the mix in a local poll.
In retrospect, NPI’s expansion into local polling in 2021 was easily one of the best decisions that our staff and board have ever made. It enabled us to dive deeply into issues and connect with representatives of large swathes of the electorate here in the Pacific Northwest on a regular basis.
While Republicans were pumping out bombast and trying to create media hype, we were focused on taking the pulse of Washington with neutral questions.
Here are three examples of indicators that guided our thinking as last year began.
Voters liked Democrats’ work on key issues
We knew as 2022 began that voters in places like Pierce County were very supportive of the police reform bills and the capital gains tax on the wealthy that Democrats had passed in the 2021 legislative session — because we made an effort to ask them for their opinions. Republicans kept on insisting that suburban voters were primed to punish Democrats in the midterms for these legislative accomplishments, but our polling showed the opposite.
- COVID-19 response: 67% of suburban and exurban voters in one of our local polls told us they supported requiring patrons of restaurants, bars, clubs, and wineries to provide proof of vaccination as a condition of entry. In another of our local polls, a majority said they agreed mask-wearing should be mandatory in all school buildings and facilities.
- Police reform: Net support for police reform ideas like banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds exceeded thirty-five points in our surveys, with supermajorities expressing support. Other police reform and accountability ideas got total support of 74%, 73%, 70%, or 66%.
- Build Back Better: After the House passed President Biden’s signature legislative proposal (parts of which later became the Inflation Reduction Act after negotiations with Joe Manchin) we asked voters what they thought of its planks, like lowering the cost of prescription drugs and investing in electric vehicle infrastructure. We found a majority of suburban and exurban voters supportive, with over four in ten strongly supportive.
- Capital gains on the wealthy: Our statewide polling has long found support for a capital gains tax on the wealthy amongst likely voters. But our local polling showed that support was also robust in Washington’s suburbs and exurbs, despite Republican rhetoric and fearmongering.
Strong suburban approval ratings for Biden, Inslee, Murray
The extent to which presidential approval ratings matter or will help/hurt candidates of the president’s party in an election is often debated.
Our team thinks that the usefulness of presidential approval ratings has waned in comparison to previous political eras. But it was nevertheless striking to us that our polling was finding rock solid approval ratings for both President Biden and Governor Jay Inslee in suburban and exurban Washington even as national reporters were breathlessly holding up Biden’s falling national approval ratings, which saw a significant drop after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In the places where Evergreen State majorities are made, we could see that there was plenty of satisfaction with Democratic governance at the federal and state levels. This suggested that Republicans’ expectations of 1994 repeating itself were rooted in wishful thinking, not an understanding of current voter sentiment.
For example, in September of 2021, we found that in the City of Sammamish, once a solidly Republican city and more recently a battleground, President Biden had an approval rating of 75% and Governor Inslee had an approval rating of 71%. Meanwhile, in the wider East King County exurbs (communities to the east of Bellevue and Kirkland), we found Biden at 61% and Inslee at 63%.
That support continued into 2022. In our 2022 King County polling, closer to the election, we found similarly strong numbers for Democrats, with Patty Murray rated the most highly of all in our summer 2022 poll of King County voters.
A fierce aversion to today’s Republican Party
Our polling found the Republican brand is in tatters in much of Washington State, with many voters expressing disgust over the party’s worship of Donald Trump, the refusal to concede the November 2020 presidential election, and the January 6th insurrection. In one of our surveys, we asked Biden voters if there was anything the Republican Party could do to earn their vote in 2022. Two-thirds simply said no upfront, while the remaining third offered comments like this:
“Actually care about people and ban Donald Trump from ever going near a presidential election again. He caused an uprising, seriously the fact that he was not completely disgraced by the party is outrageous.”
“Candidates should be fiscally conservative and have moderate social views. Far right or extreme conservative Republicans is not what the party needs. No more Trumpism types!”
“Completely gut the party, stop taking bribes from NRA and basically reverse your stance on everything.”
“Decide on a platform very much like Ike Eisenhower’s and get rid of your lunatic fringe (Boebert, etc.). Also, actually work with others in Congress rather than simply being a do-nothing party.”
“Generally speaking, adopt a platform as opposed to platitudes. I was a registered Republican until 2017. The party is focused on orthodoxy of discussion that revolves around culture war as opposed to anything productive. The fact that the Party of a Lincoln is giving tacit support to those that openly talk of secession and violent revolution would have the man turning in his grave. I want conservatism back, not this right wing nationalist stuff.”
“Remove yourself from Trump. Denounce all Q‑Anon conspiracy theories. Admit that the election was not stolen. Censor and remove any party members that participates in hate speech, fear lingering and/or misinformation about Covid and Covid vaccines”
Rather than repenting in sackcloth and ashes (to borrow the phrasing of another of our poll respondents!), Republicans proceeded to put up candidates in 2022 like Joe Kent, who campaigned on defunding the FBI, arresting Dr. Anthony Fauci, and canceling U.S. support for Ukraine in favor of Putin’s “reasonable” demands.
(Kevin McCarthy even showed up in Washington to stump for Kent and get his picture taken with the man, who ousted longtime incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler but went on to lose to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.)
At the legislative level, Republicans did try to put up a crop of more reasonable candidates. But those folks couldn’t escape the stigma of the Republican brand.
The election results vindicate our research — twice
I observed at the end of that January 28th, 2022 post that polls are snapshots in time and mentioned that we would be going back into the field to get fresh data. We did just that. Not once, but many times. We polled statewide, we polled at the congressional level, we polled at the legislative level, and the local level.
Those survey projects allowed us to stay in regular contact with representative samples of the electorate, ensuring that we could regularly take the public’s pulse. Republicans tried all year long to build a reality distortion field to make their dreams of a “red wave” a self-fulfilling prophecy. We were onto their game, and urged reporters not to be taken in every chance that we got.
On Top Two Election Night in August of 2022, the Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat recognized our efforts. These were the opening paragraphs of his column:
So much for that rumored big red conservative wave.
So much also for the conspiracy theorists, the election deniers (most of them, anyway), and the MAGA right-wingers.
All of these things were not faring well, at all, in Tuesday’s vote count in the Washington primary. Overall, voters in this state seemed to be repudiating the conventional wisdom that this would be the first good year for Republicans around here since 2014.
“Republican narratives have been busted,” tweeted the Northwest Progressive Institute’s Andrew Villeneuve, who had been insisting for months that local polling did not back the media-fueled notion that there would be backlash in favor of conservatives in this state.
Despite their extremely disappointing performance in Round One, local Republicans held fast to their dreams of a big victory in November.
The ink wasn’t even dry on the returns of the Top Two election when Republicans recommitted themselves to building their reality distortion field and pitching their “red wave” narrative. By late October, they were declaring that Tiffany Smiley had caught up to Patty Murray in the U.S. Senate race and pitching reporters (often successfully) to file stories on how the contest was supposedly “tightening.”
Except, of course, it wasn’t. The Republican-commissioned polls that showed Smiley right behind Murray or tied with her were garbage.
In a series of posts here, I explained over and over again that every credible survey (including our own polling) showed the contest wasn’t close and reiterated our assessment that Patty Murray was on track to be comfortably reelected.
As late as a few hours before the initial results were published, we were still getting the occasional note from a right wing reader disputing our analysis.
But not after Election Night. After the right wing reality distortion field imploded and reality set in, there was just an incredible quiet. The Trafalgar fans who had expressed an interest in returning to our comment threads to talk about the election results were nowhere to be found. They all vanished.
Sound data can benefit everyone
At NPI, we have deeply held progressive convictions. Our core values of empathy, mutual responsibility, and freedom guide our work. But while our advocacy is subjective, we strive to be objective in our research. The purpose of our polling isn’t to generate numbers for use in pitching policies — it’s to find out what people really think about candidate elections, ballot measures, and a range of issues.
We know that we can only do that if we follow the scientific method and ask neutral questions of representative samples. So that’s what we do — every time.
As I mentioned earlier, it isn’t possible to know the future. But it is possible to gain a better understanding of how an election may unfold with sound data.
Unlike many organizations that commission polling, we share a significant number of our findings publicly, always accompanied by analysis.
We do this because we believe that sound data can benefit everyone — especially in an era of rampant disinformation and extreme polarization.
We could see that Democrats were positioned to do very well in 2022 because we and our pollsters were regularly talking to voters. Republicans weren’t wrong that voters were (and are) concerned about issues like inflation and crime, but our research showed that the midterms weren’t going to turn on fears that Republicans were planning on exploiting (and tried their utmost to).
Rather, as usual, the election turned on who most people trusted. The Republican Party lost the trust of a lot of voters by devolving into a values-less cult that worships authoritarianism and revels in its embrace of double standards. The Democratic Party is the only major party left devoted to keeping the republic. Voters get this and it’s why they recommitted to Democratic governance in 2022.
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