There are states that matter in the process to pick the Democratic presidential nominee. Washington isn't one of them—at least not in terms of votes.
For better or for worse (and it's hard not to say "for worse" unless you live in New Hampshire or Iowa), the presidential nominating process gives disproportionate power to the handful of states that hold the earliest primary contests. That handful includes the perennial momentum setters of New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina, which will all apportion their delegates in early January 2008. But this election cycle, with more and more states catching on to the idea that the early state gets the clout, it also includes Nevada and Florida (which both recently moved their primaries to January), along with the huge group of states that have pushed their primary contests up to the newly christened "Super Tuesday" of February 5, 2008.
On Super Tuesday, well over a dozen states will decide which Democratic candidate gets their delegates, meaning that by the time Washington holds its caucuses four days later, on February 9, 2008, there will probably be a set front-runner, a set media narrative about the likely Democratic nominee, and little that Washington can do to swing the race in the direction of its favored Democratic contender.
Sure, there are scenarios in which Washington could yet be a pivotal state for Democratic candidates—just like there are scenarios in which Indiana, which holds its primary on May 6, 2008, could be critical. "I just think it's very cynical to assume that since we're not Super Tuesday there's not a chance we'll be a player," says Dwight Pelz, chair of the state Democratic Party. Using a World Series analogy, Pelz told me: "We don't think there's going to be a sweep this year. We think we are game five."
That's nice spin, but it's an unlikely scenario.
Washington voters can influence the nomination process, however—provided they're willing to open their checkbooks. Washington's money matters, unlike Washington's caucuses, and the candidates seem to know this. On Saturday, June 23, Bill Clinton was in Seattle trying to raise $200,000 for his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, at a closed-door lunch at the Westin Hotel. She's only raised $90,000 from this state so far, according to opensecrets.org, which tracks campaign donations. That's far behind John Edwards, who leads the Democratic field here with $245,000, and Barack Obama, who has raised just over $210,000 in this state. The organizers of the Bill Clinton fundraiser were still tallying totals as of press time, but if they reached their goal, Senator Clinton could jump into the money lead here, for the moment.
Senator Clinton has yet to appear in Washington herself. In contrast, Edwards and Obama have both been here doing some limited campaigning; Edwards met with union members in South Seattle in May and Obama held a local campaign kickoff in June at the Qwest Field Event Center. Those visits may be a sign that both the Edwards and Obama campaigns see Washington not just as a cash machine, but also as a potential "last stand" state—a place where either candidate could show renewed momentum if things are looking bad coming out of Super Tuesday.
Washington's recent record as a place for failing Democrats to rebound isn't promising, however. Howard Dean looked for lefty voters here to give him a boost in 2004, after his insurgent primary campaign began imploding. No luck. While Dean had found a great deal of early financial and volunteer support in Washington, the state's Democratic delegates ultimately went to John Kerry.
More reliable than the allegiance of Washington Democrats, then, is their willingness to invest early in "underdog" candidates (even if they later turn on them).
Republicans have tried to milk the same impulse in Washington, but so far the Republican underdogs are still underdogs here, money-wise. Rudy Giuliani was here raising money in June, and John McCain was here in February. But both are still far behind Mitt Romney, who was also here in June and who leads the Republican field in Washington with more than $270,000 raised (that's more than even the Democratic money front-runner, John Edwards, has raised here).
Democrat or Republican, though, writing a check—whether it's a large one that boosts a candidate's spending power, or a small one that boosts his or her increasingly important total number of donors—may be the only way for Washingtonians to get involved early this year. Because by the time we get around to caucusing on February 9, 2008, the race for the nomination is likely to be over.