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Win Whatcom

Win Whatcom - Whatcom County, Washington.


In late September of 2013, Lake Research Partners was hired to provide polling services for a slate of four progressive candidates running for county council in Whatcom County, Washington. Two were incumbents facing Republican challengers, two were challenging Republican incumbents. But more was at stake than just seats on the Whatcom County Council – at stake was the future of a proposed coal shipping terminal in Whatcom County, which, if built, would have had massive environmental impacts on a global scale. This also meant that we would be going up against the well-funded coal lobby. In order to block the permitting for the coal terminal, the slate of four progressives had to win all four seats – just one win by a conservative would have allowed the current pro-coal majority on the council to stay intact. Further complicating the race was that due to the council’s status as a quasi-judicial body, none of the candidates were actually allowed to state their position on the coal terminal, forcing both sides to focus on other issues critical to Whatcom County, despite the coal terminal being the #1 issue on voters’ minds, with equal support and opposition. And just over two-fifths of the electorate identified as single-issue voters who would vote for/against the entire slate of candidates based on support or opposition to the terminal, leaving a smaller target audience.

After its poll, LRP found that in one race, the Democratic candidate was winning, in two others there was a tie, and in the last one, the incumbent Republican led by 12 points. Furthermore, all of our candidates were unknown to half the electorate, with our challengers being even more unknown. However, in all four races, roughly half of voters were undecided, indicating that there were still many voters who could be won over, which in some cases, meant providing the necessary cues to give them direction in the officially nonpartisan race. After testing a variety of messages for and against both sets of candidates, we found that their candidates were vulnerable on their connections to the national Tea Party, as well as past questionable decisions involving land usage and water usage – such as voting to pave over farmland with slaughterhouses, and polluting the county’s water sources, decisions our candidates had been against.

By using this frame, we were able to draw effective contrasts between our candidates and their opponents that went beyond the issue of the coal terminal, as well as provide more specific messages customized to each individual race. Working with lead consultant Dean Nielsen of Cerillion N4, our strategic advice helped inform the incredibly successful mail program and GOTV/turnout effort, and all four of our candidates were victorious on Election Day, ensuring that the new Whatcom County Council would have a progressive majority that would stop dirty climate-changing coal from coming to Whatcom County.