Why isn’t Oregon a slam dunk for President Obama?

November 1, 2012

In typical discussions about the most competitive swing states in the presidential election, Oregon and its seven electoral votes are almost never part of the conversation. While President Obama is likely to carry the Oregon next week, the state is more competitive than most people probably think. But, why?

Some of it is just business as usual in a state in which recent presidential elections have been surprisingly competitive. Another part of it has to do with the state's stark geographic divisions and libertarian streak. 


Portland, pictured above, is a very liberal city. But not all of Oregon shares its sentiment. (Don Ryan/AP)

Let's start with the current state of play in Oregon.

An Oregonian newspaper poll released this week showed Obama leading Mitt Romney by just six points, 47 percent to 41 percent. The survey was in line with the Real Clear Politics average of recent polling of the race in Oregon, which also showed Obama up by six.

To better understand why Oregon is more competitive than it may seem at first blush, it’s useful to look at the way the state has voted in recent elections. The Democratic presidential nominee has carried the state during the last six presidential elections. But that only tells part of the story.

While Obama won there by 17 points in 2008, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) defeated George W. Bush by just four points in 2004. In 2000, Bush came even closer to winning, with Democrat Al Gore outpacing him by less than one percentage point. What's more, in 2010, Republican Chris Dudley came within two points of winning the governor’s race.

It's worth noting that in 2000, Bush’s success might have been a bit overstated considering the that Green Party nominee Ralph Nader carried about five percent of the vote – much of which would likely have otherwise gone to Gore.

“I wouldn’t want to overstate the swing nature of Oregon in presidential politics,” cautioned Dan Lavey, a strategist who advised Dudley’s campaign and once served as an adviser to former senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Obama's wide margin of victory in 2008 might also have overstated the strength of the Democratic brand in Oregon.  "His margin was inflated by the fact that the Republicans' brand was horrifically in the toilet," said non-partisan pollster and political analyst Tim Hibbits. 

Lavey chalked up the closeness of the current presidential contest in Oregon to dearth of on-the-ground campaigning.

“There really hasn’t been much of a campaign here, and so the natural blue drift that would occur -- the energizing of Democrats -- has not occurred because there has been no campaign here,” he said.

The West Coast, populous as it is, rarely gets much attention in presidential campaigns. (We know of what we speak as a native of Washington State.) Because of its consistent Democratic tilt, candidates spend hardly any time there. (The last time any of the three states went for the Republican nominee was 1988, when California voted for George H.W. Bush.) And when they do make the trip, it’s often for fundraisers in Southern California or Silicon Valley.

But lumping Oregon in with California and Washington, politically speaking, is an oversimplification; the Real Clear Politics average of polls in California shows Obama leading by almost 14 points while in Washington his lead is about 12 points.

What is it about Oregon itself that makes it somewhat hospitable to Republicans?

One possible reason: The economy is not doing so great, which could explain why Romney’s call for a change of course is resonating there, to an extent. Oregon's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in September was 8.7 percent – higher than the national average.

But unemployment was even higher in California (10.2 percent) and about the same in Washington (8.5 percent). So there must be something more about Oregon. 

There is. On its surface, the state may look like a purely a left-leaning part of the country. Portland’s reputation as a cyclist and public transportation-friendly city with environmentally-friendly inhabitants is well-established. It’s also among the least religious states, polling shows.

The eastern and southern parts of the state, though, are much more rural and conservative than the western portion, where Portland is located. And there is a decided independent/libertarian undercurrent in Oregon that has led some GOP strategists to express optimism about its future in the state. 

Here's what GOP strategist Karl Rove said about the state  at a breakfast in Tampa during the Republican National Convention:

“You also have something going out there, sort of this libertarian, Western, iconoclastic I’m-not-going-to-be-put-in-a-box. But something’s going on in Oregon. They’ve got a 30-30 statehouse. And Republicans came within 15,000 votes of winning the governorship and yet it's the most unchurched state in the union. So it’s a weird conglomeration. Oregon might be next."

Oregon voters have demonstrated a tendency to want the government out of their lives on social issues and fiscal matters, Hibbits noted. "It's kind of a weird mix of truly 'leave me alone,'" he said. 

Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, where the deadline to postmark ballots arrives on Friday in the Portland area. (After that, voters can hand-deliver them). Forty-four percent of the ballots returned so far are from registered Democrats, while 35 percent have come from registered Republicans. 

For now, Oregon appears primed to remain in Democratic hands for yet another election. Neither Obama nor Romney is hitting the TV airwaves with new ad buys there, suggesting neither side really believes state is in play late in the race. But the Democratic Party’s grasp over Oregon isn’t as firm as it might seem.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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