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Spin Control: Candidates pick the issue that wins with their voters

Abortion-rights advocates protest in front of the Supreme Court on June 30.  (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

For the average voter, it sometimes may seem like candidates for the same political office live in completely different worlds.

2022 is definitely one of those times. Campaign ads for Republicans like Senate challenger Tiffany Smiley emphasize the economy and inflation. Ads for Democrats like incumbent Democrat Patty Murray talk about abortion rights.

For anyone scratching their head about that seeming disconnect, a recent Crosscut-Elway Research poll suggests those are the two issues most likely to motivate Washington voters.

About half the voters surveyed in mid-September said they were doing worse financially than they were a year ago. Nearly three out of five said they disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

That’s not likely to change, pollster Stuart Elway said last week. Although the price of gasoline might vary somewhat over the next few weeks, inflation isn’t going away in the next six weeks. And the so-called Dobbs decision which returned abortion decisions to the states and energized some voters when released in the summer, now seems “baked in” to voters’ choices.

Voters who said their financial situation was better or about the same as a year ago were much more likely to say Democrats should keep at least partial control of Congress. Those who said it was worse were more likely to say Republicans should take over one or both chambers.

Three out of four voters who said they agreed with the Dobbs decision said the GOP should take control, while three of four who disagreed said Democrats should take control.

Pollsters also asked about the 2024 presidential race, and found voters were somewhat split on whether to go with the 2020 choices or have someone else in the mix. Half the voters who self-identified as Democrats said they would be most likely to support President Joe Biden while a third said they thought another Democrat should run. About half the self-identified Republicans said they’d support former President Donald Trump for another run while roughly one in four said they’d support someone else.

The independents were about evenly split among Trump, Biden, another Republican or another Democrat, with the largest chunk saying they hadn’t decided. Biden was more popular among voters between 18 and 35, while Trump was more popular among voters older than 65.

As with all polls, the results are a snapshot of voter sentiment when the survey was taken, which was in mid-September. They don’t predict how the 2022 or 2024 elections will come out.

But they did suggest Washington’s race for secretary of state, between incumbent Democrat Steve Hobbs and unaffiliated challenger Julie Anderson, is essentially a dead heat with about two of five voters undecided.

One reason may be that voters often rely on party affiliation on so-called down-ballot races, Elway said. But even though Republicans have held that office for some 60 years, no Republican finished in the top two of the August primary.

Anderson is getting more support from self-identified Republicans, although that may be a “not Democrat” vote on their part, he said. Although voters who identify as independent often say they wish they had more independents on the ballot, they were slightly less likely than Republicans to say they would vote for Anderson and almost half said they were undecided.

The survey also asked respondents what they thought of “ranked choice voting” a process in which a voter can choose more than one candidate in declining order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority in the initial tally, the first-place votes for the candidate with the fewest votes will be transferred to the second choice, and so on, until one candidate has a majority. The process was used this summer in the Alaska primaries.

“It’s not too popular,” Elway said. Nearly half of voters surveyed said they opposed the process, although there was variation between different groups.

Slightly more than half of voters aged 18 to 35 said they would support such a system, but the support dropped quickly with age and less than a third of all voters over 50 would support it.

That question also showed one of the biggest divides between Seattle and Eastern Washington. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in the former said they’d support ranked choice voting, while only about one in four in the latter said they’d back it.

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