Ferry County’s status as a bellwether in presidential elections is gone.
No longer will the nation’s political prognosticators look to the north-central Washington county as an indicator of the way America will vote in White House races.
Its string of picking correctly in the presidential race since 1960 snapped last week, when Ferry County went for John McCain and the nation chose Barack Obama. In neither case was the race really close.
The outcome of the national election came as a bit of a shock to Ferry County Republicans, who were gathered at the Prospector’s Inn in Republic on election night, county GOP Chairman Sam Jenkins said.
Almost everyone they knew was voting for “Sarah Palin and that white-haired dude,” he said. So when the crowd, many of whom knew of the county’s string of picking presidents, saw Obama declared the winner a few seconds after polls closed on the West Coast, “they were stunned,” Jenkins said.
Sarah Spark, the Ferry County Democratic Party chairwoman, said local Democrats were aware of the streak, too. But “no one could really put their finger on what they were doing to keep the streak going.”
The streak was mentioned in weekly news magazines, on National Public Radio and various political Web sites in the weeks leading up to Nov. 4.
County Auditor Diana Galvin, a Republican elected two years ago, said she was unaware of it until Election Night, even though she’d worked in the Elections Department for years before getting the office’s top job. Somebody from Grant County, who had read about the streak on the Internet, called the office that evening to ask a staff member about results.
“We never had a clue,” Galvin said.
The county may have owed its notice this year to the fact that Missouri, which was a battleground state for the presidential election, was considered a bellwether because it had given its electors to the national winner in every race since 1960.
Ferry County was among just a handful of counties across the country that hadn’t missed a pick since 1960. In fact, its voters went with the eventual winner of the presidential race in all but three races for 100 years. They went for Democrats Alfred E. Smith in 1928 and Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956.
By comparison, Washington state voters “picked wrong” in seven elections since 1908, and six since 1960.
Ferry County may owe its streak to the fact that for much of the 20th century, it was strongly Democratic. Its previous three “misses” came from backing Democrats in the face of Republican landslides.
Hugh Maycumber, who served as Ferry County auditor from 1946 to 1948, said the county came out of the Depression pretty heavily Democratic and stayed that way for decades. It began to shift Republican in 1980 with Ronald Reagan’s election, but Democrat Bill Clinton won two races in the 1990s when GOP candidates split the vote with independent Ross Perot in two elections.
“Ross really intrigued a lot of people here at that time,” Jenkins said.
Ferry County’s streak was probably just waiting for the law of averages to catch up to it.
Edward Tufte, a Yale University professor emeritus of statistics and information design, wrote what many consider the defining statistical analysis of bellwether counties in 1972. He cautioned in that study that a string of past picks doesn’t mean a county can predict elections. Bellwether counties are a myth that have no scientific basis, and shouldn’t be taken seriously, he wrote.
In an e-mail this week, Tufte was even more emphatic about the uselessness of bellwether counties: “They are the B.S. of coincidence.”
Jenkins noted that Missouri, like Ferry County, lost its status of correct picks this year, so maybe there’s a new way to look at things.
“I’m wondering if how goes Missouri, so goes Ferry County,” Jenkins said.