New polling released this morning shows Washington's Secretary of State race in a dead heat—until voters learn about the Republican write-in candidate.

While previous surveys have found a large share of voters undecided in a statistically tied race between Democratic incumbent Steve Hobbs and nonpartisan Julie Anderson, the new poll from Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) is the first to include Republican write-in candidate Brad Klippert as an option for respondents to support. 

Once voters learn of a Republican running, even as a write-in candidate, Anderson's support crumbles and she sinks to a distant third place. The fact that fewer voters expressed indecision when presented with partisan options suggests that GOP voters care more about voting for a GOP candidate than they do about making the state's elections offices nonpartisan, a key part of Anderson's campaign platform. 

In a highly polarized society with one major political party pushing baseless conspiracies about election fraud, who could have imagined that voters would find partisan cues helpful? (We could.)

Republican Write-in Candidate Has a Chance

November's contest was shaping up to be the first guaranteed loss for the GOP in the Secretary of State's race in more than fifty years, but NPI's polling and the August primary results now suggest that could change. 

In the primary, Anderson narrowly edged out the top Republican by around 12,000 votes. But if you combine the votes the whole conservative clown car earned this summer, you get the GOP with 39% of the vote, the Democrat with 40%, and Anderson, the nonpartisan, with 13%. 

In a sane world, Klippert's entrance would spell doom for Anderson and launch Hobbs to victory. However. If the GOP can unite behind Brad Klippert's write-in candidacy, Hobbs's poor showing in the primary and the presence of Anderson as a "nonpartisan" candidate could allow the Republicans to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

While the prospect of a write-in campaign winning might seem laughable at first glance, the race for Lieutenant Governor in 2020 showed that such campaigns can garner hundreds of thousands of votes. In that race, current Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison came in first among the GOP candidates, but she failed to garner enough support to advance to the general election. That left Democrats Denny Heck and Marko Liias to duke it out in the November ballot. But the Republicans refused to go quietly into that good night, opting instead to marshal support for a write-in effort from failed gubernatorial candidate Joshua Freed.

With backing from the Washington State Republican Party, which Brad Klippert is receiving in this year's Secretary of State race, Freed ended up with a respectable 759,000 votes. He still came in third, but his presence in the race meant that neither Democrat cracked 50% of the vote share, and Heck only won by roughly 12 points.

Since Washington has a 50-year habit of voting for Republicans to run the Secretary of State's office, it's genuinely possible that this guy could improve on Freed's performance and finish first. All he needs to do is swing enough of the 25% of undecided voters to his side.

Nonpartisan Elections Are Bad, Actually

When the Stranger Election Control Board endorsed Hobbs, we took issue with Anderson's push to make the SOS's office and county auditors nonpartisan. Our beef stemmed from research showing that nonpartisan races only benefit the minority party, which in this case is the election-denying GOP.

The latest polling from NPI on this race reinforced that idea, as it showed that voters strongly respond to partisan cues. 

In the poll's first head-to-head matchup between Hobbs and Anderson, nearly a third of respondents (32%) said they felt undecided about who they would support. But once the poll added Klippert into the mix and identified him as a Republican, the share of undecided voters dropped by seven points to 25%. Looking at the poll's cross-tabs provides a clear explanation why.

The partisan makeup of Hobbs's coalition remains relatively steady between the two questions, with two-thirds of self-identified Democrats backing him in both rounds and a marginal increase in support among self-identified independents once Klippert enters the race. Anderson, on the other hand, starts with 61% of self-identified Republicans but only hangs onto 22% of them after they're given an actual GOP candidate to support. She also bleeds support among independents, dropping from 35% support to just 20%. 

All of that data confirms what any observer of American politics knows in their gut: in a race between a Democrat and a "nonpartisan" candidate, most of the latter's support comes from people who don't like Democrats. Now all that remains to be seen is whether Hobbs's campaign can spread the word about a legitimate Republican threat to take over the Secretary of State's office without inadvertently handing his write-in challenger victory in an unpredictable three-way race.