SEATTLE — It has become a truism of West Coast politics, from California to Washington, that the Pacific oceanfront is a kind of Democratopolis, with a culturally linked strip of liberal cities from San Francisco through Portland and Seattle that tilts left, votes left and takes surrounding states along for the ride.
Only one Republican in any West Coast state won a statewide election this year — Kim Wyman, Washington’s secretary of state-elect. Oregon residents have not elected a Republican to statewide office since 2002, and California has been bereft of statewide Republican officeholders since last year.
But figures from the Washington secretary of state’s office, where certified county results from the all-vote-by-mail election were posted Tuesday, show a pattern of coastal Democratic dominance that has perhaps not been this pronounced in a governor’s race here in at least 60 years — and probably ever.
Eight counties. That is all, out of 39, that the new governor-elect of Washington state, Jay Inslee, a Democrat, won on Election Day. The vast majority of the state, at least geographically, favored Rob McKenna, the state attorney general and a Republican, who triumphed in county after county while still falling short.
Only one other time since at least 1952, the figures show, did a governor win with only eight counties in her pocket on Election Day, and that was in one of the closest elections in recent U.S. history: 2004, when Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, won by only 133 votes out of 2.8 million cast. Gregoire, who is leaving office in January after two terms, got about 48 percent of her total votes from the big eight, led by King County, which includes Seattle, the state’s biggest city.
Inslee, by contrast, depended on eight Democratic county stalwarts for almost 58 percent of his votes, in winning by about 95,000 votes statewide out of about 3.1 million cast.
In the past, winning statewide required a much bigger geographic net. In 1996, for example, Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, won in 22 counties. Gregoire in 2008 carried 12. As recently as the 1990s, winning governors’ races typically meant winning 20 to 30 counties, though Mike Lowry, a Democrat, won in 1992 with only nine.
As another measure of how politics have shifted, the last Republican governor of Washington, John Dennis Spellman, elected in 1980, won in all but seven counties. He landed majorities in most of the big urban areas, too, including King County.
“In Washington, we’ve always talked like we have this tradition of the maverick who can draw support across party lines," said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University in Bellingham. But it is fading to myth, he said.
First, the heavily Democratic, socially liberal Seattle area has exploded with growth over the last 20 years, Donovan said. A second force is partisanship — people are more likely, in both Democratic and Republican areas, to vote straight ballots.
The idea that like-minded voters are also likely to live in the same place became a kind of cultural meme after Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, “The Big Sort," which argued that fewer and fewer places in play in presidential elections, up for grabs by either party, revealed a nation of opposing camps.
Other experts in voting patterns, though, say the Democratic Party’s current Western dominance is not really about sorting out at all, but simply a demographic engine of density: The coasts just have a lot more people, so even a slightly tilted preference toward one party gets amplified.
“The clustering is not because of political beliefs," said Samuel Abrams, an associate professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Many studies and surveys, he said, show Americans less likely than ever to even know the politics of their neighbors, especially in larger cities, or to be discussing politics over the backyard fence.
Party registration, Abrams said, has also been declining, even in so-called landslide counties that can look fiercely partisan, especially in presidential elections. He said when all election results are examined, not just for president, the research shows in fact a decline between 1976 and 2008 in the number of lopsided, sorted-out counties.
Demographers also say population trends could throw cold water on the idea that geography defines political destiny. Eastern Washington, for example, where more conservative voting patterns have long prevailed, had some urban areas growing faster than the west, recent census numbers show. But a strong element of the growth was also in Latino populations, which showed strong support for Democrats nationally in this month’s elections.
But Washington has gone its own way, contrary to national winds, before. The last Republican governor, Spellman, was elected in 1980, when President Ronald Reagan led the Republicans to the White House in a close victory. Four years later, when Reagan won re-election in a landslide, Washington voters rejected Spellman and replaced him with a Democrat.