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October 13, 2008 12:37 PM

Why the Obama effect may not materialize here

Posted by Richard Wagoner

domke.JPGUniversity of Washington professor David Domke, an expert on the intersection of faith and politics, writes today about why top Washington state Democarts my not benefit from the "Obama effect."

By David Domke

Around the United States, Barack Obama's presidential fortunes have improved significantly in recent weeks. Since Sept. 15, when Lehman Brothers went under and the stock market began its free fall, Obama has opened somewhere between a 5 percent and 10 percent national lead over John McCain.

Surveys of registered and likely voters - compiled faithfully and neutrally at pollster.com - suggest that the race has moved in Obama's favor in state after state: New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. In many of these places, Democrats running for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and governor's office have also seen their standing rise.

For example, a New York Times article on Sunday included this passage:

"If Obama is able to run up big numbers around the country," said Mr. Anuzis, the Michigan [Republican] party chairman, "the potential for hurting down-ballot Republicans is very big." One sign of that has emerged in Nebraska, where Representative Lee Terry, a Republican, ran a newspaper advertisement featuring words of support for him from a woman identified as an "Obama-Terry voter."


If that's happening in crimson-red Nebraska, then surely leading Democrats are riding this Obama wave here in Washington, right?

Not if we believe the same pollsters.

Let's start with the governor's race. Since Sept. 1, there have been six polls publicly reported. In three of them, Republican challenger Dino Rossi has led; in the most recent one, published on Oct. 2 by Rasmussen Reports, Rossi and Democratic incumbent Christine Gregoire were deadlocked at 48 percent. Among the polling-fixated, Rasmussen is considered to have a slight Republican-lean "house effect," but in the same poll Obama had opened a 10-point lead, up from two points in the previous Rasmussen survey of the state. Rossi led Gregoire by a stunning 57 percent to 37 percent among unaffiliated voters.

Next let's look at the 8th Congressional District, where incumbent Republican Dave Reichert is being challenged for a second time by Democrat Darcy Burner. If ever the Democratic Party might win in the 8th, this would seem to be the year.

But in three publicly reported polls since Sept. 1, Reichert has led by an average of six points. The most recent poll, published this past Friday, came from Democratic-leaning Research 2000, and still put Reichert ahead 49 percent to 41 percent. Reichert led among both men and women and among every age group. Notably, the poll showed Obama up by four points, 47-43, in the 8th.

So why haven't Gregoire and Burner risen with Obama? Here's three key reasons.

1. Rossi and Reichert have successfully - so far at least - avoided the George W. Bush torpedo. Bush's presidential approval ratings are at historic lows, in Richard Nixon territory. Any Republican who is seen as closely tied to Bush or to the poor Republican Party brand is suffering. Rossi has gone so far as to run as the "GOP candidate," forsaking the Republican moniker in a terrible-for-Republicans election cycle. Reichert, for his part, has kept adequate distance from Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney. Advantage Rossi and Reichert.

2. Gregoire and Burner have not delivered compelling economic messages, a crucial detriment in an electoral environment marked by the worst economic downturn since the 1970s. Gregoire is a smart, can-do governor, but she has been unable to make the case that Rossi is too economically risky for the state. In fact, Rossi has had the better of this argument by pinning the current state budget deficit on Gregoire, even though Rossi bears at least some responsibility when in the state Senate.

Burner became a rising star in Democratic Party circles on the strength of her opposition to the Iraq War. In 2006, this issue was front and center for voters across the country, and Democrats rode it into control of the Congress. Burner didn't join them, but she came within 8,000 votes of Reichert. This year the issue has receded in the face of economic crisis, and Burner has struggled to pivot to the economy. It's not an impossible move: Obama has done it ably on the national level. But Burner has not been able to do it yet.

3. Gregoire and Burner have failed to build dynamic emotional connections with voters. Reichert is the sheriff who relentlessly pursued the Green River killer. Rossi is the almost-was-governor candidate, who lost (or had the election stolen) only after three counts of the ballots. Like 'em or not, Rossi and Reichert have powerful stories.

Gregoire and Burner have stories to tell too. But, by and large, they haven't told them with the kind of emotional oomph needed to connect with voters. Here, again, is something that Obama has been able to accomplish in recent weeks, a point I wrote about in my last Times column. It's I-feel-your-pain time.

Every election year, some book seems to capture the public's attention in explaining how people make voting decisions. The book for this election cycle is 2007's The Political Brain, by Drew Westen, a political psychologist at Emory University. In an essay he wrote for the Washington Post (and printed in the Times) more than a year ago, he put it this way:

"Two visions of mind and brain have dominated contemporary American politics. One is a dispassionate vision, which suggests that voters choose candidates by examining their positions on the issues and coolly calculating their relative costs and benefits. The other, a passionate vision, suggests that voters are moved by the feelings that candidates and parties elicit in them and are guided by their shared values and goals. The dispassionate vision has guided much of the strategy that has reliably cost Democrats winnable elections over the past four decades, and it could do so again in 2008."

Gregoire and Burner have three weeks remaining to ask voters this question: can you feel the economic plans I will pursue? If the answer is no, then Washington may be one state in which any Obama effect on down-ballot races is unfelt.

David Domke, a former newspaper journalist, is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Domke also has worked with Democratic Party leaders in the Northwest to understand the dynamics of modern political campaigns. His latest book, "The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America," was published in January. He can be reached at domke@u.washington.edu.


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