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Spin Control: Beneath data, a glimpse into voters’ thinking

Washington voters tend to stick with incumbents, with notable exceptions.

They ousted Sen. Warren G. Magnuson in 1980, when he was among the most powerful members of the Senate. They ousted Speaker Tom Foley in 1994, when he was the most powerful member of the House. They replaced three-term Sen. Slade Gorton with Maria Cantwell in 2000.

Republicans are hoping for anti-incumbent lightning to strike again in 2010 with Republican Dino Rossi’s run against Sen. Patty Murray.

To do so, however, Rossi has to change more minds in King County and get more votes out of Eastern Washington. He has to get more men to vote or improve his standing among women.

Or he has to change the hearts and minds of people who right now plan to vote for Murray.

Those are some conclusions drawn from a recent poll by Elway Research Inc., which contacted 500 likely voters from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12 for The Spokesman-Review and the Seattle Times. The bottom line of the poll – Murray at 50 percent, Rossi at 41 percent and 9 percent undecided – was reported last week in Elway’s newsletter and the newspapers.

After those results came out, the Rossi campaign and some Republicans scoffed. Other polls had the race closer, and some even had Rossi ahead. Later in the week, however, new surveys essentially said the same thing: Murray was ahead, comfortably but not overwhelmingly, with support from at least half of those surveyed. Pretty soon, Democrats started sporting those self-satisfied smiles and Republicans began questioning Rossi’s campaign strategy.

The newspapers didn’t pay for the poll for the latest on the “horse race,” because we know the numbers keep changing. We were interested in issues on voters’ minds and how those issues may play into the election. One story about that appears on Page One today, and another about initiatives is scheduled for Monday. But the thing about polls is they produce so much information it seems a shame to waste it.

Journalists are probably second only to campaign wonks at spending too much time with poll numbers. But the one thing we know – even if it seems we forget – is that polls don’t predict the outcome of elections. Instead, they offer a window into the minds of the electorate at the time the poll was taken.

And here’s what a look through that window into Washington’s Senate race shows:

A gender gap: Murray and Rossi are splitting the male vote fairly evenly (44 percent to 45 percent), but she has a big advantage among women (57 percent to 36 percent).

An age gap: Rossi does better among young voters (45 percent to 36 percent), and Murray does better with baby boomers (57 percent to 37 percent). That’s better news for Murray if this is a standard election, because older voters are much more likely to vote.

A regional split: Rossi is winning in Eastern Washington plus Pierce and Kitsap counties, but he’s trailing badly in King County. And King County is to statewide races what banks were to Willie Sutton: That’s where you get the stuff you need.

The poll also suggests that Rossi’s attacks on Murray’s use of earmarks, tying them to the federal deficit, won’t net him many extra votes. Those who want to stop federal earmarks overwhelmingly support Rossi, just as those who think that’s a good way to bring federal money to Washington support Murray. The problem for Rossi is that voters are evenly split on earmarks vs. local spending, so it’s not a place to pick up voters who might otherwise gravitate toward the incumbent.

The story is the same when voters were asked whether they think it’s more important to reduce the deficit or spend federal money to create jobs. Rossi wins among the deficit hawks, Murray wins among the stimulus supporters, and voters overall split pretty evenly on what’s the best course of action.

All of this is a reason why pollster H. Stuart Elway said Rossi has to do more than just appeal to the undecided voters. He may have to go negative, which is risky for any candidate, and possibly more so in this race because, as Elway notes, “Patty and Dino are nice people.”

But somehow he’s got to convince people who plan to vote for Murray right now that they should vote, instead, for him. Because remember, polls don’t predict elections, or as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Spin Control, a weekly column by veteran reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments, videos and more poll numbers at

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