Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
You've probably been in this position before. It's election night and with 30%, 40%, 50% of precincts reporting, the race you're watching is close. But, you have no way of telling whether the numbers look good for your candidate or not. As T.V. anchors tend to say, "We have no idea where these results are coming from!"
The best solution, of course, would be to know EXACTLY where the results are coming from. If you knew which precincts had reported and the voting histories of those precincts, you would probably be able to tell how the results were playing out. Precinct-level results, however, are hard to come by in real time on election night and, with hundreds of precincts in each state, comparing those results to past elections in real time is even more problematic.
So, let me suggest an imperfect solution. If you know, based on a comparable election, which counties should be the key swing counties, you can come to conclusions much more quickly. County election results are usually available in real time on media Web sites and any decent secretary of state's site. If you know which counties usually vote in a way that mirrors the statewide totals, you're election watching will be much better informed.
To support the cause of informed election-watching, this week I'm going to tell you which counties to watch in some of the key state races. Tentatively, my list includes the governors' races in Washington and North Carolina, the gay marriage vote in California and the abortion vote in South Dakota. Let's start with the easiest one of them all: the Washington gubernatorial race.
This one is easy because the same two candidates, Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi, ran against each other in 2004. The fairest assessment of what happened is that the election was a tie. Someone has to take office, though, and the final tally gave Gregoire a 129-vote victory.
So, if a county was close four years ago, it will probably be close again this year. King County, Washington's most populous county (where Seattle is located), is reliably Democratic. Just to its South, though, is Pierce County, Washington's second most populous county. Just to its North is Snohomish County, Washington's third most populous county. Both Pierce and Snohomish are swing counties.
In 2004, Rossi won Pierce 51%-47% and Snohomish 50%-48%. Obviously, that was only good enough to get him a statewide tie. So, if Gregoire is winning either one of these places, that's very good news for her.
As close as the results were in Snohomish and Pierce, they weren't the closest jurisdictions in the state. That honor goes to Cowlitz County, in the Southwestern corner of the state. Gregoire won it by less than half of a percentage point. So, keep an eye on Cowlitz. Gregoire also won very narrow victories in Grays Harbor County and Whatcom County.
Of course, the counties that were close aren't the only ones that count. All things being equal, a candidate that goes from 35% to 40% somewhere has done as much for his or her cause as one that goes from 47% to 52%. Knowing which counties were close simply makes it easy, at a glance, to judge how the election is going.
That said, it's a little bit silly to ignore King County, with all of its votes. In 2004, John Kerry won 65% of the vote in King, which powered him to a comfortable statewide victory. Gregoire mustered only 58%. That dramatic underperformance is a big reason she had to sweat through several recounts. So, I'll be watching whether Gregoire is above or below 58% in King.
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