Is Washington State's Primary a 2014 Harbinger?

Is Washington State's Primary a 2014 Harbinger?

By Sean Trende - August 7, 2014

One of the interesting quirks of American politics, which I've written about before, is Washington state's primary.  It has the advantage of being held reasonably close to Election Day, but has an additional benefit: All candidates appear on the ballot, thereby somewhat mimicking the dynamic we will see in November.

In addition, unlike California, Washington has used this primary system dating back to the 1930s, except in 2004 and 2006, when it was struck down by a court.  So we have a large potential data set here to draw upon.

Despite the fact that there are slight differences between the system used pre-2004 and post-2008, and despite the adoption of an earlier primary date, there is nevertheless a high correlation between the vote share a Democratic candidate receives in the primary and the vote share he or she receives in November. The following scatterplot demonstrates this:



I’ve colored the points by year not because I expect for you to look closely to sort it out, but just to demonstrate that there isn’t a particular bias created by the passage of time or the somewhat different law at issue: We see dark dots on the top and the bottom of the implied line.

I’ve taken the races where both a Republican and a Democrat ran, dating back to 1992 (excluding 2004 and 2006, when a closed primary was used). I’ve also counted the number of Republican and Democratic candidates running in the primary because, as we’ve seen in California, additional candidates in the primary can lead to lower turnout in November, all other things being equal. Overall, I tested to see how the result in November correlates with the result from the primary and the number of candidates running in that primary.

The resulting model works awfully well. The r-square is 0.93 and the variables point the way that we would expect them to point.

In general, Democrats in Washington state perform better in the fall than they do in the summer -- this makes sense, given what we know about general election turnout vs. primary turnout. In 2012 they performed, overall, 3.5 percent better in the fall. In 2010 they performed 5.5 percent better in the fall. The only exception is 1996, where they performed about three-tenths of a point worse in the fall.
When we plug this into the results from 2014’s primary results, we get the following predictions: 



As you can see, we shouldn’t expect much of a change in Washington’s delegation. The Republican seats -- Districts 3, 4, 5, and 8 -- are expected to stay safely Republican, while the Democratic seats should stay blue -- 10 and perhaps 1 are the sole exceptions, if things take a turn for the worse for the Democrats.

But this isn’t entirely surprising. Washington state has an incumbent protection map in place. In 2010, the only seat that flipped was the open 3rd District, which was a swing district. Today, all of the Democratic districts have a Cook PVI of D+4 or better. Even in a year like 2010, Republican wins in these sorts of districts were few and far between.

To put this in better perspective, let’s consider the following table. It shows the Democratic total share of the primary vote, by year: 

This list mostly makes sense: 2008 was a very good Democratic year, and the showing reflects this. 1992, 1996, and 2000 were good Democratic years, and 2002 swung against Democrats as the run-up to the debate over authorization to use military force in Iraq heated up in the fall. The atmosphere isn’t quite as bad as it was in 1994 or 2010, but the Democrats’ showing is quite a bit closer to 1994 than to even a decent Democratic year like 2012. (Note 1998, where the environment was pretty negative for Democrats until Republicans decided to proceed with impeachment.)

Overall, I think this is a fair assessment of where things stand today. Right now, it doesn’t quite look like a full-on GOP wave like 1994 or 2010. But it isn’t a very good environment for Democrats, either. 

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 Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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