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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘A microcosm of the country’: How one Washington county became America’s new bellwether

PORT ANGELES, Wash. – Behind their desk at the Port Angeles Visitors Center, Marielle Eykemans and Rita Marston can tell a tourist anything they want to know about the area.

Some visitors know exactly what they want to do in Clallam County. Maybe it’s a ferry ride to Victoria, British Columbia, or an excursion to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. Others need a little bit more guidance. For those who like walking, Marston, 80, whose job is to gather brochures from across the state, has the perfect map. For those who love history, Eykemans, 71, recommends a stroll on the pier decorated with bright murals of what the old timber town and fishing port used to be.

Eykemans came to Washington from Holland in 1975, and after living in Seattle for two years, she found herself in Port Angeles. Marston, originally from England, came to the city in 1979.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes,” Marston said.

Over the last 40 years, the two have seen how a changing timber and fishing industry, mill closures, an uptick in tourists and a pandemic can change the politics in Clallam County .

And somehow through it all, Clallam – the northernmost county on the Olympic Peninsula – has managed to pick presidential winners. Clallam County now has the longest streak in the country, having voted for the eventual winner in each presidential election beginning in 1980. Joe Biden currently leads by about 3 percentage points in the 77,000-person county.

From 1980 to 2016, 19 counties were considered bellwethers, a county that consistently backs the national winner, switching parties as often as the White House does. After this election, Clallam County is the only one that remains.

No one in the county really knows why they’ve had such a long streak. It could be the county’s diversity of ideology and ability to come together, or maybe its experiences over the last 40 years are reflective of what’s going on in the rest of the United States.

Or maybe, it’s just happenstance.

Diversity of political ideologies

Port Angeles Mayor Kate Dexter calls Clallam a “microcosm of the country,” at least as far as ideologies go.

The county stretches along the northwest tip of the state with Olympic National Park to the south, a sliver of Jefferson County to its east, and water on all other sides. Its residents are mostly white, and it includes rural lands, a few small cities and five recognized tribes.

“We’re a mostly rural county that’s heavily influenced by the I-5 corridor,” Dexter said, referring to Interstate 5 which runs through Portland and Seattle (but not Clallam County).

Other than the presidential race, most statewide executive races this election were tight in Clallam County, with Republicans garnering slim leads. In the race for governor, Republican Loren Culp leads Gov. Jay Inslee by less than half a percentage point, just 225 votes.

Republican candidates for attorney general and commissioner of public lands are winning Clallam County by less than one percentage point.

Alan Turner, 70, owner of Port Book and News in Port Angeles, said he was surprised when the county voted for Biden this election. With all of the Trump signs and the discussions around town, he assumed Trump would have won.

The politics are split fairly evenly, but the county has become less conservative over time, said Turner, who moved to Port Angeles 35 years ago.

The county is home to multiple tribes, including the Jamestown S’Klallam, Makah, Quileute, and Lower Elwha Klallam tribes.

Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, said she worked this year to rally the community and encourage them to vote.

“We really want people to know that Native votes count,” she said.

The tribal government also provides information and voter guides that explain which candidates support the tribes and their concerns, such as treaty rights, climate change, jobs or poverty.

This year, the tribal government clearly supported Biden, Charles said.

Clallam County Commissioner Mark Ozias, a Democrat, said the result of the presidential election in the county often comes down to how excited Democrats are about their candidate. In 2008, there was a lot of excitement in the county around Barack Obama, Ozias said. In 2016, however, Hillary Clinton didn’t generate that same buzz.

Ozias lives in Sequim on the east side of the county, which is home to retirees from all across the country. He described Sequim as mostly purple in local and federal elections.

Marc Abshire, Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director, said he was surprised to find out about Clallam’s track record but chalked it up to the diversity of ideological viewpoints across the county.

In the weeks leading to a major election, Abshire said he can drive through town and see signs from both parties on either side of the same street.

“There’s a really good mixture,” he said.

An engaged electorate

Another guess for why the county has backed the winner for president in the past 10 elections is its residents’ ability to stay engaged and come together, despite political ties.

Clallam County has a small-town feel that makes for an engaged community, Dexter, the Port Angeles mayor said, said. Voter turnout this year topped 85%. That’s compared with 2016’s 80.5%.

Ozias, the county commissioner, said it’s impossible to move to the county and not become engaged in the community somehow, whether through volunteering or church or a Rotary Club.

Because everyone seems to know everyone, residents find ways to work together despite political differences, Ozias said.

“Here, it’s just us,” Turner, the bookstore owner said. “If we’re going to make a change happen, we have to make it happen ourselves.”

That sentiment is clear in Port Angeles, as the city struggled to find a way to deal with the loss of a timber economy. Despite a pandemic, the city’s economy is currently growing, Abshire said.

The waterfront is being revitalized, hotels are reopening and people still are moving there. It’s not uncommon for tourists to visit the county for Olympic National Park or a ferry to Canada and decide to move there permanently, Dexter said.

Clallam County isn’t a place you just end up, Abshire said. You move there for a reason.

When people from across the country move there, they bring their diverse political feelings with them and, once they get settled, they find out quickly the importance of setting those aside for the common good, Ozias said.

Everyone is used to seeing each other, Ozias said, so it’s almost always possible to work together productively, despite political differences.

“I don’t know if that speaks to how we vote,” Ozias said, “but it does speak to how we choose to interact with each other.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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