With days to go before Washington’s March 10 presidential primary, all signs point to record turnout by voters, with more than 1 million ballots already returned in a race that will help determine who carries the banner for Democrats against President Donald Trump this fall.
But visions by Democratic Party leaders that the final days before Tuesday’s primary would see a frenzy of appearances by big-name candidates have faded, with the state politically quarantined by a suddenly shrunken presidential field and a rapidly expanding coronavirus crisis in the Puget Sound region.
No further visits have been announced by the remaining top presidential contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. They’ve instead been campaigning heavily in some of the five other states voting the same day, including Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri, as well as in Illinois and Arizona, which vote March 17.
For Sanders, Tuesday’s vote is a shot to regain some mojo after setbacks on Super Tuesday. For Biden, a strong showing in a state where Sanders won the 2016 Democratic caucuses would bring further momentum.
A poll released Friday by KING 5 showed the race here in a statistical dead heat, with Biden at 36% support and Sanders at 35% — and Biden leading by 9 percentage points among late deciders.
In the bottom-line chase for Democratic delegates, Washington still matters; 89 pledged delegates are at stake, the second most — behind Michigan — of any state voting March 10. But in terms of drama, the primary looks to be ending with a whimper, with no final get-out-the-vote rallies amid warnings from public-health officials to avoid crowds.
In an effort to address the burgeoning outbreak of COVID-19, Public Health – Seattle & King County has recommended that people 60 and older stay away from “public places with lots of people and large gatherings where there will be close contact with others.” Biden is 77 and Sanders is 78.
State Democrats postponed the party’s annual Warren G. Magnuson Awards dinner, which had been set for this past Saturday. The party earlier had hoped multiple presidential candidates would attend and speak at the event, which had been promoted as “the single biggest event in Washington State Democratic Party history.”
Still, supporters in both camps say they’re still battling for votes here.
Sanders has fielded by far the more substantial ground game, with seven paid staff and thousands of volunteers. Late last week, his web page listed dozens of opportunities for volunteers to meet up, make phone calls, knock on doors and try to sway their neighbors, from Walla Walla and Spokane to Vancouver and Seattle.
“We’re still immensely focused on Washington. We’re not taking our foot off the gas,” said Joe Calvello, a Sanders campaign spokesman.
Sanders “appeals to working class folks of every race,” said U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, who has emerged as a prominent Sanders surrogate, crisscrossing the country to campaign for him. “There is a deep anger amongst voters across this country who really feel, correctly, the economy hasn’t been working for them and they want somebody who’s going to be willing to take on those special interests who have been turning the government and the economy away from helping them.”
Biden is counting on name familiarity, his connection to President Barack Obama as his vice president, and the consolidation of support among moderates who believe he’s best positioned to defeat Trump. His campaign presence has been minimal, with two paid staffers and no campaign office. His website lists just one event in Washington – a “Virtual phonebank for Joe in Newcastle.”
Still, Biden won 10 states on Super Tuesday, despite not visiting or having a physical campaign presence in several of them.
“The people in this country really know him, know his values, that he’s for the working person,” said former Gov. Christine Gregoire, who endorsed Biden on Thursday. “I think Super Tuesday taught us that the American people really want someone who can beat Donald Trump, and they totally believe that’s Joe Biden.”
Gregoire said she advised the Biden campaign to skip a visit to Washington because of coronavirus concerns.
Record-breaking turnout expected
Notwithstanding the candidate schedules, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, said she expects turnout to set a record.
“I am guessing we will be over 50%,” she said Friday. The previous high mark for the state’s presidential primary was in 2000, when 43% of registered voters participated. As of Friday evening, 30% of voters already had returned ballots in the March 10 primary.
The higher numbers have been largely driven by the competitive Democratic primary, with the party choosing to abide by the primary results for the first time instead of relying on precinct caucuses.
“I think it’s exciting because people are feeling like their votes matter,” said Wyman.
Washington’s lengthy vote-by-mail window means tens of thousands of voters have cast ballots for candidates such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have since exited the race for the Democratic nomination.
And hundreds of thousands voted when the primary looked very different — with Sanders as front-runner as he was winning the most votes in the first three states, but before Biden turned his campaign around with a resounding victory in South Carolina.
Through Friday, nearly 800,000 Washingtonians had cast their ballots in the Democratic primary, but about 450,000 of those returned their ballots on or before the South Carolina primary, according to data from the Secretary of State. An additional 500,000-plus voters had returned ballots for the Republican primary, with Trump as the only listed candidate.
Biden’s improbable turnaround has been credited in part to the wave of endorsements from fellow Democrats — first South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, followed quickly by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Klobuchar, Buttigieg and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
But a similar burst has not come in Washington, for either Biden or Sanders.
As of Friday, Jayapal was the only Washington Democrat in Congress or elected to statewide office who has endorsed one of the two remaining candidates.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who served as U.S. Attorney for Western Washington in the Obama administration, endorsed Biden on Friday, arguing he’d “fight to deliver on our progressive values.”
But many top Democratic elected officials have remained neutral or silent, including Gov. Jay Inslee, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
“We feel confident that the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she — he, now — may be is so much better than what the current incumbent is,” Murray said in an interview Friday. “Our Democratic candidates are talking about the issues that people need us to be talking about right now, access to health care, access to sick leave, access to child care.”
Democratic voters still deciding
Sanders has attracted an army of passionate volunteers committed to his political revolution against the billionaire class, and sweeping agenda of change, including Medicare for all and making tuition free at public colleges and universities. They argued he’d draw record voter turnout among young people and others who feel disenfranchised
On a recent chilly Saturday morning, about 60 volunteers with the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) showed up at Othello Playground in Rainier Valley, ready to push doorbells in nearby neighborhoods.
They were feeling pumped up about Sanders’ prospects after early wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and gathered for a chant of “I believe that we will win!”
They shared stories of obscene medical bills and student debt leaving friends and family a step from the streets.
Paul Alexander, a DSA organizer, said he has $98,000 in student debt, and $14,000 in medical debt. While he said he now has a good-paying job as a game developer, he knows others are struggling even more.
Alexander told the crowd he looked forward to a “cleansing wave” washing away the policies of the political establishment that place hardships on working-class families while protecting billionaires.
“The days of bracing ourselves for the worst and hoping that we survive whatever’s coming at us — those are over. We are on the attack, and we are going to transform this country for the better with all of you,” he said.
David Truong, a recent college graduate, said Sanders inspired him to volunteer for a political campaign for the first time. “With Bernie, it’s not like I’m voting for a candidate. I feel like this time I am actually voting for a movement, and where I want the country to head towards,” he said.
The enthusiasm for Sanders is not shared by some Democrats who fear his agenda and socialist label will turn off moderate and swing voters, and could hurt down-ballot candidates for Congress.
“I find it extra unlikely that he could win the general election. If his nomination leads to the reelection of Trump and possibly the loss of the House of Representatives as well, it will be one of the gravest political mistakes in the history of the country, if not the world,” said Brian Baird, a former Democratic congressman who represented Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, now held by Republican U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. Baird endorsed Biden on Friday.
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, had a more mixed assessment of Sanders’ viability.
“For those who think that if he is nominated it will be materially harmful to down-ballot Democrats, I don’t think they are fully factoring in stuff we know. We know he has consistently led Trump in polls,” he said. And Sanders “may very well appeal to some people with a history of voting Democrat that Hillary didn’t do too well with.”
But Heck, who has led House Democrats’ candidate-recruitment efforts, said “almost to a person” Democrats from swing districts “are all voicing strong concern — I think those are voices you have to pay attention to.”
On Tuesday, the final tally for Biden and Sanders may depend on the choices by people who had favored Warren. She finished third in the KING 5 poll released Friday, with 10% of the vote.
Seonaidh Davenport, 51, was out last weekend knocking on doors in Ballard for Warren, something she’d done almost every week since November. While her first choice was clear, she said many of the people whose doors she knocks on are “kind of in a stasis,” unable to decide on a candidate.
“There’s maybe going to be some nose-holding,” she said of primary voters. “The top issue is, ‘I want to beat Trump.'”