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Spin Control: What was the 2014 election all about?

OLYMPIA – A paragraph in the political correspondents’ code requires us to tell voters “what it all means” on the Sunday after an election.

Personally, I’ve always believed that by now you’ve all figured it out for yourselves, but to break the code means I could get assigned to some less attractive duty, such as monitoring the police scanner or covering WSU football. So rather than risk packing up the furniture and calling the moving truck, here’s what we learned from the late, great, and sometimes grating, 2014 election:

1. It was not a throw-the-bums-out election, regardless of what some pollsters suggested for months based on approval ratings for the president, Congress and government in general being lower than whale poop. It’s not that local, state and national government doesn’t contain its fair share of bums. More likely, the public preferred the bums they have to the bums they would get through the trade-in. Very few seats actually changed hands. The state Senate went Republican, by a single vote, on the strength of a Democrat-turned-Republican winning an open seat previously held by a Democrat. That leads to:

1A. The two major parties are willing to bet control of the Legislature on just a few races. Redistricting, which has become a synonym for incumbent protection, made many seats that were solidly Republican or Democratic even more so. Some incumbents faced no opponents, and some races were a choice between two candidates of the same party. That means:

1B. The parties are willing to abandon some voters to the opposition. Eastern Washington had some legislative races with no Democrats, and the West Side had some with no Republicans. A few incumbents even ran unopposed, which seems odd if incumbent is synonymous with “bum.”

2. No matter what you might read or hear in the national media, Washington is a solidly purple state. It’s mostly blue in the metropolitan Puget Sound, and mostly red in the east. There wasn’t a statewide partisan race this year, but the legislative races, district by district, bear that out. Because of that, Washington voters might not mind “divided government” – if they think about it at all. They had it for the past two years, and given the chance to change it, they put Republicans in charge of the Senate and left the House to Democrats. Which leads us to:

3. Politics in Washington is like a pendulum. It swung far to the Democratic side in 2006 with big margins in the Legislature while a Democrat was in the governor’s office. It hasn’t gone quite that far to the Republican side since 1981 when the GOP had both chambers and the mansion, but that doesn’t mean it will never go back there. (Politics in Idaho can’t be described as a pendulum unless it’s on a grandfather clock that has stopped with the swing far to the right. Democrats there are ecstatic about picking up one seat in the Legislature.)

4. Mixing polls and history gives you an indicator, not a predictor. Initiative 1351, the class-size reduction measure, which was described in terms just short of motherhood by supporters, was so far ahead in the polls in late October that some people assumed it couldn’t lose. Only initiatives with well-funded and well-organized opposition have fallen so far so fast, they said. But elections are like the World Series. We don’t govern by polls any more than we let statistics pick the champion. We make them play for it. I-1351 is in extra innings. Behind on election night, it was slightly ahead by week’s end.

5. Washington’s all-mail voting system may improve turnout a bit, but it has its limits. This midterm’s balloting may not be the worst of its kind in modern history, but it won’t be anything to brag about. Don’t look at the delivery system, refer to 1 through 1B. But while we’re talking about all-mail balloting:

5B. Washington does not need to change the system to require all ballots to be in hand by Election Day to satisfy the demand for results from candidates, campaigns and the media. Most races were decided by 8:45 p.m. Tuesday, which is much sooner than we ever had final results from poll-site voting. It’s also in line with results in Oregon, with its much admired “all ballots in hand by 8 p.m. Election Night” rule.

We might not know the outcome of I-1351 for a couple weeks, but only because it’s so close that it could come down to the last ballots received from the troops overseas, whose votes are counted right up until the totals are certified. And no legislator is going to vote to disenfranchise our brave men and women in uniform just to satisfy the complaints of a few whiny candidates or campaigners.

Speaking for the media, we don’t mind a little bit of electoral drama leading up to Thanksgiving. It keeps us from being assigned to stories about the latest turkey stuffing recipes.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at
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