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Spin Control: Elway Poll shows rural, urban voters divided on issues, each other

When politics gets boiled down to a fight of us vs. them, how the “us” believe the “them” think about “us” could be a key to elections.

Or so a new survey of Washington voters by the Elway Poll seems to suggest. It looked at one of the most enduring features of the state’s political furniture, the Cascade Curtain, and which group of voters think other groups of voters regularly “diss” them.

It also looked at the landscape for the 2018 congressional races and found some good indicators for Democrats in Western Washington. In Eastern Washington? Not so much.

In what pollster H. Stuart Elway calls the politics of resentment, voters were asked if they thought different individuals or segments of the population had a favorable or unfavorable view of people like them. Notice it’s not “What do you think of them?” but “What do you think their view is of you?”

President Donald Trump was a fairly polarizing figure – you’re shocked, no doubt – with far more voters surveyed in Seattle, King County and the rest of Western Washington saying they had negative opinion of Trump’s view of folks like them. That was generally true whether they were in a big city, a suburb, a small city or a town, although for the last two it was a fairly close call. The one group that had Trump in positive territory were rural voters.

Eastern Washington voters were about evenly split on whether Seattle residents view them favorably or unfavorably, and Seattle voters were only slightly more likely to say folks “over the mountains” had an unfavorable view of them.

The real splits seemed to develop on the political parties. Voters in every geographic split but Eastern Washington had a net negative view of Republicans and a net positive view of Democrats. For East Side voters, that was reversed. Rural voters were more likely to think the news media had negative views of them, while voters in Seattle and most other Western Washington areas were more likely to think the media had a positive view. The exception were voters in Pierce and Kitsap counties, who gave the media a net negative score.

Voters in all geographic areas were at least twice as likely to say they were dissatisfied with the direction of the country. But there were some significant partisan splits on that and some other key issues.

Democrats were much more likely to say they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, that the economy favors the rich, that firearms policy should focus on controlling violence and racial discrimination is the main reason minorities can’t get ahead.

Republicans were slightly more likely than not to say they are satisfied with the nation’s course, but were much more firmly convinced that the U.S. economy is fair, that the most important thing about firearms policy is protecting gun owners’ rights and that minorities are responsible for their own condition if they can’t get ahead.

Independents tended to be about halfway between the two parties on each of those issues.

The survey also asked voters which party’s candidate they were inclined to vote for in next year’s congressional election. In the state as a whole, Democrats had a distinct edge, although that disappeared for voters in the four congressional districts now held by Republicans. A generic Democratic candidate did better with women, and in all income, occupation and age categories – sometimes by double digits – while a generic Republican candidate was leading only men and voters with high school educations.

Pollster Elway acknowledged the election is a year away and generic Republicans don’t run against generic Democrats, real people run against each other. But taken as a whole, the survey results suggest Republican candidates may be “carrying extra weight into the election year,” he said.

A third way? Or a third rail?

The Elway Poll suggests a deep partisan split, but you may be asking “What about the folks in the middle?”

A new political action committee, Washington Independents, is trying to find and recruit centrist candidates as part of a nationwide project. It had a rollout last week with former Democratic U.S. Rep. Brian Baird and former GOP Chairman Chris Vance, also a former state legislator and King County councilmember, at its head. They say they want to provide independent candidates the support they need to be competitive.

But here’s a fact that will be hard for the PAC to overcome even with money and professional campaign advice: Washington’s top two primary system favors the two major parties, even though it’s designed not to be a partisan election. It is almost impossible for an independent or a minor party candidate to finish first or second, and move on to the general election, if the two major parties each have a candidate in the race, or even if one party is ignoring the race and the other party has multiple contenders.

Overcoming that historic fact will be the biggest hurdle for the new PAC.