The lack of any big high profile elections in the Washington State primary last week meant it was mostly ignored by the media, but it could prove to be incredibly interesting as a predictor for the general election. If past trends hold, it would indicate that down ballot Democratic prospects in the upcoming election have significantly improved since 2010.

Washington State is unusual in two important ways. First, its use of vote by mail means it has relatively high turnout even in less eventful elections. Second, the state in 2008 adopted a top-two primary system. All candidates of all parties compete in the same primary with the two largest vote getters moving on to the general. While the system is new, before that Washington had a blanket primary which create a tradition of voting your favorite candidate regardless of party during the primary. Washington’s primary now functions more like the first round in a run off election system than a traditional partisan primary.

What these means is the primaries in Washington tend to be remarkably predictive of general election outcomes, with the relative share of the vote each party gets in the primary being highly predictive of the vote share they’ll likely get in the general. This is true for both individual races and at a statewide level.

With this in mind I compared the election results in Tuesday’s primary to the 2008 and 2010 elections. I looked at the percentage of the overall vote for the two major parties that went to declared Democrats and declared Republican in all the state House of Representatives races, since all of them are up every two years. Third party and independents candidates were excluded.

State House 2008 Primary 2008 General Change from primary to general
Democrats 55.88% 58.95% 3.07%
Republicans 44.12% 41.05% -3.07%
2010 Primary 2010 General
Democrats 45.59% 47.58% 2%
Republicans 54.41% 52.42% -2%
2012 Primary
Democrats 54.20%
Republicans 45.80%

For comparison, I did the same thing with the Congressional races, although the relatively few races means one or two races can really move the totals. For example in the heavily Democratic 7th district in 2010 no Republican managed to make it to the general, which clearly increased the Democrats’ total for the general.

Congress 2008 Primary 2008 General Change from primary to general
Democrats 57.98% 59.20% 1.22%
Republicans 42.02% 40.80% -1.22%
2010 Primary 2010 General
Democrats 50.96% 53.32% 2.36%
Republicans 49.04% 46.68% -2.36%
2012 Primary
Democrats 52.75%
Republicans 47.25%

This final chart combined the total votes in state house races and Congressional races. Since that gives the large sample size of elections that take place every two years, it may prove to be the most predictive for national trends.

State House and Congress 2008 Primary 2008 General Change from primary to general
Democrats 56.62% 59.04% 2.42%
Republicans 43.38% 40.96% -2.42%
2010 primary 2010 general
Democrats 47.45% 49.59% 2.15%
Republicans 52.55% 50.41% -2.15%
2012 primary
Democrats 53.69%
Republicans 46.31%

As you can see, there was a huge 10.3 point drop in the percentage of votes won by local Democrats in the 2008 primary compared to the 2010 primary. Similarly there was a seven point drop from how Congressional Democrats in Washington did in the 2008 primary compared to the 2010 primary. There was a combined 9.2 percent drop for Democrats among all the votes for all the state House of Rep. and congressional races. This mirrors what we saw at a national level in the general elections. In 2008 Democrats rode a wave winning 55.6% of the vote that went to the two major parties in the House of Representative races, but in 2010 Democrats won just 46.6% of that vote. That is a nine point swing.

Based on the actual election results in Washington and past trends it is probably fair to predict that the 2012 election down ballot will not be as favorable for Democrats as the 2008 election, but is should be significantly better than 2010.

Barring a huge game changing event, this will likely be a relatively decent year for down ballot Democrats. Democrats will likely make some real gains in the House of Representatives and state legislatures although the number of seats will likely be reduced by the fact that Republicans had significant control over redistricting this cycle in most states.

I hope that as we get data from new elections I can build a better model to determine how predictive the Washington state top two primary vote is of national trends. While there is relatively little data currently, early indications are that the Washington primary could serve as not only a very effective bellwether of local elections but possibly of national elections as well.

Note: The primary vote count in Washington State is not yet final and there are potentially a few ballots still left to count. If totals change significantly when the results are finally certified I will update the post. All election data is from the Washington Secretary of State’s office