Clark County has its share of swing voters

Independent mindset plays pivotal role in both local, national elections

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge
photoSue Lintz

During the 2008 elections, the front yard of Sue Lintz’s Vancouver home included a puzzling landscape of political signs.

The self-described swing voter had staked her Barack Obama signs proudly, while her now late husband had put signs in place for presidential hopeful John McCain, whom Sue Lintz thought had picked a poor running mate.

“I never paid attention to party,” said Lintz, a retired corrections officer. “I always listened to what the candidate had to say and decided if I liked (the candidate) or not.”

The Vancouver couple’s political leanings oscillated between Democratic, Republican or third-party candidate, depending on the election, Lintz said last week. And although Lintz’s front yard might have prompted stares from some passers-by, that independent mindset plays a pivotal role in elections in her area of Clark County.

Lintz lives in the county’s Andresen/St. Johns neighborhood, and more specifically, in voter precinct 335. Hers is one of 75 Clark County precincts in which a majority of voters picked Democrat Obama in 2008 and Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler in 2010. In 2010, there was a total of 194 voter precincts in the county.

Those 75 precincts — in other words, swing precincts — are located in Hazel Dell, Vancouver’s West Minnehaha neighborhood, much of Vancouver east of Interstate 205, chunks of Camas and Washougal, and neighborhoods hugging the western side of I-205 just north of Highway 500.

Mapping so-called swing precincts isn’t an end-all-be-all measurement of the county’s political climate. But the snapshots of two recent major elections help identify areas where politicians might focus during this election season.

The theories

Independent voters are a rare breed when compared to party-line voters, said John Milem, a Vancouver man whose analysis of data helped the state create its latest redistricting plan. Each area that looks red, blue or undecided on a map is in reality made up of a combination of liberals, conservatives and independents.

It’s the ratio of those populations that make the difference when studying precinct voting trends. Precincts are less predictable when their Democratic or Republican populations are closer in number, and it’s within those precincts that the independent population can tip the scales one way or another.

“Most people have a predilection toward one party or another,” Milem said. “You can almost say the (more independent) area is going to dictate who wins.”

The 2010 election was unique in that the conservative, anti-tax Tea Party was gaining momentum. Republicans picked up 64 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Another possible theory for why some precincts leaned Democrat in 2008 and leaned Republican two years later is that Clark County was becoming more conservative, said Mike Gaston, executive director of the Clark County Republican Party. In 1990, the county was about 40 percent Republican, according to Gaston’s calculations, and now it’s about 54.5 percent Republican.

If politics is a numbers game, Gaston has what it takes to compete. He’s tabulated Clark County voter information dating back 20 years, meticulously updating the data every time the precinct lines change and shift small populations of people around.

Gaston said he speculates that the county might have seen a surge in Democratic residents during World War II, when the Kaiser shipyard was established. Those working at the shipyard had union jobs, tended to vote for Democratic candidates and settled in downtown and central Vancouver, he said.

According to The Columbian’s historical records, Kaiser reached a peak employment of 38,000 in 1944. Most of the people who made up that Democratic base have likely died by now or are in the later stages of life.

“Central Vancouver has been more Democrat from the get-go,” Gaston said, but that Democratic area has shrunk.

Gaston also noted that the county’s 17th Legislative District, which includes a high number of swing precincts, seems less socially conservative than its northern neighbor, the 18th District. Voters in the 17th seem to identify more with a fiscally conservative message.

“The 17th District would appear to be less doctrinaire,” Gaston said, meaning there might be parts of the Democratic and Republican platforms that appeal to them.

Democrats in Clark County have a different idea about the 18th. In a recent newsletter sent out by Clark County Democrats, party leaders said that the new voter district boundaries that were adjusted for the 2010 Census results mean the 18th District now has a better shot at electing a Democratic candidate — although no Democrats have announced that they will run in that district so far.

The population of voters who identify as “strong Republicans,” "likely Republicans," or "Republican-leaning Independents" are now outnumbered by a group that identifies as “strong Democrats,” “likely Democrats,” or “Democrat-leaning Independents,” party volunteer Maureen Gustafson wrote in the newsletter. She attributed that information to the password-protected online database VoteBuilder.

“With a voter registration drive, education about our candidates and get-out-the-vote efforts, Democrats will win the 18th,” Gustafson said.

‘In different directions’

Democrats at the state level didn’t dig too much into theories about voters in Clark County, but they did say one thing is certain about the area’s politics: uncertainty.

“Clark County’s pretty well-known for going in different directions,” the state’s Democratic Party spokesman Benton Strong said. “I think it’s why both parties really work hard down there to talk to voters.”

When looking at a swing precinct, it is unknown if the swing represents people who voted for Obama and Herrera Beutler during both races, or if the swing was caused by people moving in or out of the precinct, or by differences in voter turnout.

If voters are more enthusiastic about a candidate, more will turn out to vote for him or her, Milem said. For example, Obama seemed to energize young Democrats to vote, while the Tea Party movement seemed to energize conservatives to cast a ballot.

“Another thing I should say is that this classification among Democrats, Republicans and Independents is not very reflective of reality,” Milem said. “I think it is more appropriate to view voters as spread along a continuum.”

‘See both viewpoints’

Lintz, the independent voter from the Andresen/St. Johns neighborhood, said friends and family members have often called her “wishy-washy.”

The Vancouver resident doesn’t see it that way, though.

“I just have the ability to see both viewpoints,” she said. “I believe you should vote for who you feel is going to do the best job.”

Her past presidential picks include Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ralph Nader, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, as well as members of the Labor Party and even the now defunct New Alliance Party. She voted for Obama in 2008 and Herrera Beutler in 2010.

Lintz said that when it comes to local elections, she likes to meet the candidates in person, listen to what they have to say and decide if they seem genuine. She tends to support candidates if “you get the feeling that they’re really in tune with the common person.”

She also said she’s turned off by politicians who make religion a political issue. She tends to favor moderate candidates that can “look at both sides and can run a country for everybody,” she said.

Lintz’s daughter-in-law, Angela Coleman, 41, also identifies as a swing voter. Coleman lives at the same residence as her mother-in-law.

Coleman said she favored Obama and Herrera Beutler. She said negative campaigning done by candidates plays a factor in her decision about who to vote for.

“I’d rather hear what the (candidate) did for the people rather than the negativity” about other candidates, Coleman said. “I just don’t care for negative advertisements.”

John Hill, The Columbian’s Web editor, provided data analysis and mapping for this story. Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics