Camden: A lesson for candidates is to know where the votes are

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Jim Camden is a columnist with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Email: jimc@spokesman.com.

The results of the 2017 election hold a lesson for candidates to study if they want to maximize their chances in 2018.

Figure out where the votes are, and go after them.

Ignore, for the time being, that whole Blue Wall stuff the Democrats and national media are spinning about the state of Washington. You can’t predict a wave election a year out any more than you can predict the big quake from the Cascadia subduction zone will hit in 2018.

Yes, the Legislature flipped from Republican to Democratic control on the strength of a big win in suburban King County. But all the other legislative races in this off-year held firm to the partisan leaning they’ve been drawn to protect, and Democrats have to perform with the slimmest of legislative margins

Next year’s Spokane-area candidates would better spend their time looking at the precinct breakdown for the ballots that were turned in for this off-year election. Although some campaigns look at the percentage of turnout, the raw numbers of returned ballots tell the more important story.

That’s because in Spokane County, like in most of the country, all precincts are not created equal. Some have a couple dozen registered voters — a tiny precinct just outside the city of Spokane’s eastern boundary only has seven — and some have more than 1,000. So the 57 percent turnout in Precinct 6300, with its 1,161 voters, was much more significant than the 57 percent turnout in tiny Precinct 3000, the aforementioned voting district that rests like Liechtenstein between the eastern city boundaries and Spokane River on the edge of Felts Field.

Precinct 6300 on the other hand, sits in the farthest northwest corner of the city, with some of the subdivisions along Indian Trail. That’s one of the heaviest voting areas in the city, along with the upper South Hill and the growth areas on either side of Latah Creek.

Council candidates who won those precincts did not necessarily win the election. Matthew Howes did better in the Indian Trail neighborhoods than Candace Mumm. Andy Dunau split precincts from Comstock south with Breann Beggs. But in each case, the winner of the race kept losses in the heavy voting precincts to a reasonable margin.

In the City of Spokane Valley, the biggest concentration of ballots was in a rough triangle bounded by Dishman, Opportunity and Veradale, and they were the path to victory for four of the five winners.

Mayor Rod Higgins survived narrowly, in part because he did a bit better than the losing incumbents in those precincts, even though Chris Jackson won most of them.

A lesson from the past

The lesson is probably best articulated in a story a political operative related years ago about a conversation backstage at a 1988 rally for Michael Dukakis at Gonzaga University: It was the eve of the presidential election. The crowd inside the old Martin Center was rocking.

Hundreds who couldn’t get in because of fire codes were cheering at the speech being piped outside. Wow, Kitty Dukakis, the Democratic nominee’s wife, said, does this mean we’re going to win here?

“No,” said the pol. “But that’s not the point. The goal is to not lose too big here.”

Dukakis did win in the city of Spokane, although George H.W. Bush won the county by 265 votes. Bush’s margin also was much less in some nearby counties than Reagan’s was four years earlier. In the end, Dukakis needed some of those Eastern Washington votes. Even though he won King County by almost 60,000 votes, that lead was cut in half outside the Puget Sound and he wound up winning overall by less than 2 percentage points.

So, 2018 candidates would be wise to know where those heavy concentrations of votes are, and go after them, even if they are Republicans working Democratic precincts or vice versa. As any bookie knows, it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s whether you beat the spread.