Update: Patty Murray won the Senate race, with about 51% of the vote.
Democrat Patty Murray's lead over Republican Dino Rossi is slim at this hour. But the fact that Murray has a lead is noteworthy given the overall message voters were sending in this election. As Republicans captured the U.S. House and Washington State voters sent a strong anti-tax message through initiatives, how did Murray hold on to a lead? Here are six observations that may explain the results at this hour:
The King County factor. Democrats typically do well in King County, but early returns suggest Murray did extremely well. The first batch of numbers found Murray with 62% of the King County vote. Considering the county has about a third of the state's vote, that's a significant advantage to Murray. Moreover, King County is slower than other counties to process ballots, so there are more votes left to count from King. Rossi won more counties and all of eastern Washington, but it's difficult to overcome a 62% Murray win in King.
Rossi had no distinct advantage on the economy. We polled voters statewide and asked which Senate candidate would make better decisions on the economy. SurveyUSA found a draw--47% said Rossi, but 46% said Murray. Rossi attacked Murray over the stimulus, but when we asked voters whether Congress should have passed the stimulus, 50% told SurveyUSA they felt Congress made the right decision, compared to 43% who said it was the wrong decision. And perhaps most telling, when we asked which party is most responsible for the current economy situation, 49% said Republicans, 41% said Democrats. In polling from other states, Democrats took more of the blame, but in Washington state, more voters at this point in time, still hold Republicans responsible.
Murray held the edge on "trust." We asked voters statewide, if they trust the Senate candidates. SurveyUSA found 49% trusted Patty Murray; 43% did not. Rossi's results were worse--37% trusted Rossi, 54% did not. This may reflect the Democrats' barrage of ads that continued for months, using the refrain "he's not on our side." In the end, our polling found Democrats had driven up Rossi's unfavorable ratings from 42 to 48%. Finally, when asked which candidate might be more influenced by lobbyists, 45% told us Rossi, 39% Murray--again, a possible reflection of the Democrats' commercials attempting to link Rossi with Wall Street and lobbyists.
Murray still received a small "gender gap" advantage. At one time, the Democratic incumbent had a double-digit advantage among women voters. That came down to just 6 points at the end, but considering more women vote, that was still a slight edge to Murray.
Missed opportunities. Rossi hammered Murray over earmarks--the practice used by lawmakers to bring home money to the district. But at the end of the campaign, our poll found no distinct advantage to Rossi on this issue. We asked voters for their impressions of earmarks and 36% told SurveyUSA they had a positive impression; 37% negative. More than a quarter were unsure meaning no advantage to Republicans on this issue. Our poll found another area in which Rossi did strike a chord with voters--health care reform. SurveyUSA found 49% of likely voters in our state favored repealing the law--in line with Rossi's position. One of the last Republican commercials tried to capitalize on this, but it was late in the campaign. It's possible the votes left to count may indicate if Rossi was able to hit home this issue.
Fresh face? When asked, which candidate would bring fresh ideas to D.C., voters gave a slight advantage to Rossi. Among likely voters, 40% said Rossi would bring fresh ideas compared to 34% for Murray. But a full 25% said neither candidate would have fresh ideas--perhaps an indication that both candidates are so familiar to voters in this state. SurveyUSA polled 628 likely and actual voters with a +/- 4% margin of error.
Of course, it's Washington state, so it's not over yet. Keep watching today as more votes are tallied in King County. This should give us the best indication of what the final result will be. But these are all factors of why it's so close.