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As Goes Washington, So Goes the Nation

As Goes Washington, So Goes the Nation

By Sean Trende - August 18, 2010


In the years before reliable polling, political prognosticators relied on a simple maxim to forecast elections: As goes Maine, so goes the nation. The saying didn't arise because Maine was a swing state. Maine was in fact a solidly Republican state until the 1960s, with the Democrats only winning 13 of 219 Congressional races held between 1854 and 1960 and only a single Presidential race.

The saying arose because after the Civil War, most states in the Union coalesced around a national election day in November for Congressional races (before the Civil War, elections were held willy-nilly, with some states even holding their elections in the odd-numbered years). But quirky Maine retained its early September election date.

This enabled prognosticators to get a good sense of which way the winds were blowing. If Republicans did well, they could expect a decent year nationally. If the races were close, it was probably not going to be a good year. And if Democrats actually won a few races, Republicans knew to run for cover nationwide.

Maine opted to conform to the national Election Day after the 1958 elections, so we don't have general election returns to pore over before November anymore. There is, however, a close cousin. Washington State employed a "blanket primary" from 1935 through 2002, and again starting in 2008, which allows all candidates to run on the same ballot. Voters, regardless of party affiliation, can choose any candidate, and the top two candidates advance to the general election.

And, it turns out, these primary elections end up looking an awful lot like the November elections. I gathered the results for congressional and senate primaries in recent years where Washington used the blanket primary system (1992-2002 and 2008). This gave me a nice dataset of 65 elections. I looked at the total Democratic vote cast in the primaries, and compared it to the total Democratic vote in the general election.

On average, the Democratic candidate improved his or her share of the vote by only 1.5 points from the fall election. And there aren't too many outliers. In 47 percent of the elections, the Democratic share of the vote in November was within two points of the Democratic share of the vote in the primary (for those who speak "geek," the standard deviation is a reasonably narrow 4.2).

And most of the outliers came in 1998, when the Republicans' drive for impeachment caused a late swing against them; the average Washington Democrat saw his or her vote share improve by 4.2 points that year, almost three times the norm. As a general rule, when the Democratic share of the vote rises above 52 percent, the Democratic nominee can feel pretty safe that he or she will win. When it falls below 46 percent, the Republican will almost certainly win.

The results from last night point to a very solid November for the GOP. While we don't have complete results yet (they'll be counting for the next few days; ballots didn't have to be postmarked until today), we have enough precincts in that we have a pretty good idea where things stand in these primaries.

Of course the big fish is the Senate race. There, the Democrats have totaled 48.6 percent of the vote so far. This confirms what we've suspected so far - that Patty Murray is very vulnerable. She certainly performed well enough that she could win in the fall . . . but she also performed poorly enough that she could lose. This race continues to look very much like a tossup.

It is true that in 1998, she received 47 percent of the vote in the primary before winning with 58 percent of the vote in the fall. But Dino Rossi, whatever his faults, is not Tea Party prototype Linda Smith (who ran in 1998). More importantly, this year is not shaping up like 1998.

In the House, Republicans don't look to be at much risk of losing any of their three Washington House seats. Dave Reichert in the Democratic-leaning Eighth District has won three very close elections, and only received 49 percent of the vote in the 2008 primary. This year, Democrats are at 39 percent of the vote. It would take a highly unusual vote swing from the primary to the general election for them to unseat Dave Reichert, and he can probably breathe a whole lot easier.

Democrats had three safe districts - the 1st (which actually was competitive in the 1990s but gave Barack Obama 63 percent of the vote last year), 6th and 7th, and these Democrats do not look vulnerable, though their vote totals were down. There are two other districts that are solidly Democratic, but where Democrats have showed weakness in the past. They showed weakness again last night. In the 2nd (D+3) the Democratic vote share was at 53 percent, while in the 9th (D+5) it was at 52 percent. Washington state Democrats with these types of numbers should be looking over their shoulders, even against fairly weak opposition.

Finally, in the open 3rd District, Republican Jaime Herrera looks to be in very good shape to pick up the seat of retiring Brian Baird. Democrats so far have received 43.8 percent of the vote, to 52.1 percent for the Republicans. There hasn't been a single instance in Washington State in the past two decades where the Democrats won in the fall after receiving such a low share of the vote in the primary.

This also tells us something about the general playing field for November, and it isn't good news for the Democrats. Even perpetually vulnerable Republicans like Reichert look like they will have a good November. In the swing 3rd District, it looks like the Democrats will lose. In the Senate race, as well as in the 2nd and 9th districts, Democrats would be favored to win handily under normal circumstances, but may have close shaves and may even lose. And their incumbents in safe districts will almost certainly see reduced margins. If this pattern is repeated nationally, Democrats are in for a very rough election night.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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