In talking up his odds of defeating incumbent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray despite having lost two statewide races himself over the past six years, Republican challenger Dino Rossi likes to point out that he’d previously been handicapped by running in a presidential year. Republicans tend to do better in non-presidential years, when turnout is lower.
(I’ve always found this a curiously revealing assertion for a Republican to make, as it implicitly acknowledges that Republican candidates and their policies are markedly less popular with the general public than the results at the polls might indicate, and that Republicans thus benefit from lower voter participation. You’d think Republicans might be a little embarrassed by this admission, but oddly, no. But then, that’s a subject for another post.)
To some extent Rossi is right. About 25% fewer voters cast ballots in WA’s 2006 U.S. Senate race between Maria Cantwell and Mike McGavick than they did in the 2004 race between Murray and George Nethercutt, and the turnout drop-off between 2008 and 2010 is likely to be even greater. This should favor Rossi regardless of the political climate, as Democrats as a whole tend to be less reliable voters than Republicans, so when turnout drops, it almost always disproportionately hurts Democratic candidates.
But the question is, by how much?
For turnout is only one of many factors in an election, and while presidential year turnout certainly worked against WA Republicans in both 2004 and 2008, Rossi himself enjoyed the unique advantage of running against Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has never proven to be particularly popular, even amongst Democrats.
Patty Murray, on the other hand… well… folks just seem to like her.
For example, take a look at the 2004 race, a presidential year when both Murray and Gregoire were on the ballot. Murray actually outpolled John Kerry at the top of the ticket, receiving about 3% more votes than his 1,510,201 total. But Gregoire pulled in about 9% fewer votes than Kerry, and almost 12% fewer than Murray, only 1,373,361 total once all the recounts and court challenges were done.
And in 2008, even though she went on to defeat Rossi by a comfortable 6.5% margin, Gregoire once again tallied only about 91% as many votes as the Democrat at the top of the ticket, President Barack Obama.
That’s a pretty substantial drop-off, suggesting that Gregoire’s relative lack of likability made Rossi look more competitive than he otherwise might have against somebody like, say, Patty Murray. Who, you know, he’s actually facing off against this time around.
So yeah, turnout is going to be substantially lower in 2010 than it was in 2008, and that favors Rossi. But Murray is simply better liked by Democrats and independents than Gregoire ever was, and that’s a factor that by comparison, works strongly to Rossi’s disadvantage. And it’s a disadvantage I’ve never believed he could overcome.