Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

No Electoral College, But Statewide Races Have Math To Victory

OLYMPIA, Wash. - In the presidential race, we hear a lot about the electoral map -- and the math to winning the presidency. It’s all about swing states like Ohio and Florida. At the state level, there’s no electoral college. The candidate with the most votes wins. But there’s still a formula for victory -- even in blue states like Washington and Oregon.

Former state Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt says the way to navigate a path to victory in Washington -- if you’re a Democrat -- involves what he calls a “salt water strategy.”

“Among the Democratic-base counties there’s a similarity that I think is very interesting that people don’t think about that often," Berendt says. "That is they’re all saltwater counties. They’re all on Puget Sound.”

Chief among them: heavily Democratic King County with nearly a third of the state’s voters. If Democrat Jay Inslee is to win the governor’s race he’s got to win King County -- and win it big.

“The game plan in King County has always been to turn out the vote," Berendt explains. "If we can turn out voters, we can typically win 60 percent of the vote in King County.”

And then, says Berendt, a Democrat needs to pick up one more large county: either Snohomish to the north or Pierce to the south. But from there, it’s a fairly short path to victory.

Consider this bit of Washington political history. In the year 2000, Democrat Maria Cantwell won just five of Washington’s 39 counties to unseat incumbent Republican US Senator Slade Gorton.

So where does this leave Republicans?

“The farther away you get from the Space Needle, the more Republican the state is,” says Chris Vance, a former Republican Party chair. He says the key for Republican Rob McKenna to win the governor’s race is turning out the base in eastern Washington and in rural counties.

But then it’s right back to the big kahuna: King County.

“There’s no way a Republican’s going to win King County running in a major statewide race," Vance says. "The magic number is 40 percent. You’ve got to get 40 percent, maybe 39.8 percent, something like that, in King County to have a chance to make the math add up in the rest of the state.”

Conversely, Vance says, if a Republican doesn’t get 40 percent in King County a harsh reality quickly sets in.

“There just aren’t enough votes left in the rest of the state to win.”

Assuming a Republican candidate can get 40 percent in King County, then Vance says the next step to victory is winning both Pierce and Snohomish counties.

“Really, a Republican has to do well in what I call the suburban crescent, the communities that go around the city of Seattle.”

The reality is Washington is a blue state where Democrats outnumber Republicans. And more people live west of the Cascades than they do east. Vance says that’s made for frustrating election nights in past years where Republicans win more than 30 counties but still lose the election.

Just across Washington's southern border, things are rather similar. Republican candidates, according to pollster Tim Hibbitts, don't try to win Multnomah County. They just try to lose less badly.

"If you could find some way, rather than losing say 70-28, to lose only 65-to-33, you might trim the size of the defeat in Multnomah County enough that you might have enough votes to win in a statewide race," Hibbitts says.

Republicans have to couple that urban vote with strong support in Oregon’s vast expanse of rural counties. Those are the voters Republican Knute Buehler is counting on in the surprisingly competitive Secretary of State’s race. But as a Democrat, incumbent Kate Brown is likely to win strong support in the college towns of Eugene and Corvallis as well as areas you might not expect, such as the north Oregon coast and the Columbia Gorge.

But for both parties, the real battleground on election night is Portland’s suburbs.

"I don't believe a Republican can win statewide in Oregon without carrying Washington and Clackamas Counties," Hibbitts says.

Washington County is the corporate home of Nike and Intel and their large, highly educated workforce. It's been trending Democratic in recent years. And that’s partly why Oregon has become a more solidly blue state. But Clackamas County is more of a toss-up. This is the part of the state where you have to do very well if you're a Republican and you hope to win statewide office in Oregon.

But while Democrats hold a slight registration edge here, Hibbitts says the real wildcard is something else entirely.

"The election is not decided by partisan Republicans or partisan Democrats. It's decided by the candidate who can appeal to non-affiliated voters."

And the number of those voters has risen steadily in Oregon. In fact, more than a quarter of all registered voters in Oregon don't belong to either major party.

Click on each county to see what the results of the 2008 Washington Governor's race say about the state's electoral map. For more detail click here Source: Washington Secretary of State

Click on each county to see what party affiliation in Oregon says about the state's electoral map. For more detail click here Source: Oregon Secretary of State

Click on each county to see what the results of the 2010 Idaho Governor's race say about the state's electoral map. For more detail click here Source: Idaho Secretary of State

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."