Washington has been tilting more to the left in recent presidential elections, but not because of Pierce County.
Fewer than half of voters in the state’s second most-populous county cast ballots for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton this year, according to the latest count from Tuesday’s election.
That’s in contrast to about 56 percent of voters statewide who favored Clinton over Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who won 38 percent of the vote in Washington.
In Pierce County, about 49 percent of voters chose Clinton, while about 41 percent cast ballots for Trump.
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Sixteen years ago, the situation was different: Voters in Pierce County supported Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore at a slightly higher rate than the rest of the state in 2000.
That year, 51.5 percent of Pierce County voters supported Gore, while 50.2 percent of voters throughout Washington did.
Every presidential election since, Pierce County voters have gone less Democratic than the state as a whole.
In seven of the 10 counties Clinton won in Washington this year, she won a larger share of the vote there than she did in Pierce.
There are just more voters in those Republican areas than there were 20 or 30 years ago, when Pierce County was reliably Democratic.
Ben Anderstone, local Democratic political consultant
Ben Anderstone, a local Democratic political consultant, said Pierce County’s voting patterns have been shifting to the right partly because most of the county’s recent population growth has been in suburban and rural areas, rather than in the Democratic stronghold of Tacoma.
While Pierce County’s population grew to 844,000 people from about 701,000 between 2000 and 2016, Tacoma was the destination of only 13,000 of those new residents.
“There are just more voters in those Republican areas than there were 20 or 30 years ago, when Pierce County was reliably Democratic,” Anderstone said.
The trend also reflects Republicans’ success at appealing to white voters without college degrees, who previously were more likely to vote for Democrats, Anderstone said.
“Pierce isn’t an uneducated county, but we have a lot of noncollege-educated white voters who have been traditionally Democratic,” he said. “And they have moved toward the Republicans a little bit.”
Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant who works out of downtown Tacoma, agreed that the diminishing dominance of Democrats in Pierce County is due partly to how blue-collar voters have shifted their allegiance.
He said the county’s history of being more working-class than the Seattle area has played a role.
“Pierce County has that gritty Tacoma story,” Hays said. “Part of that probably fit really with how Trump won this election, by persuading previously Democratic, blue collar voters to switch over.”
The change in voting patterns also helps explain why Pierce County appears to have elected its first Republican executive in 20 years, Hays said.
As of Friday, Republican state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, was defeating Democrat Rick Talbert of Tacoma in the race for the county’s top job.
Should his lead hold, Dammeier would be the county’s first executive to come from the Pierce County suburbs.
In another departure from their neighbors to the north, Pierce County voters were rejecting the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure to expand light rail throughout Pierce, King and Snohomish counties — something Anderstone attributed partly to skepticism in the Pierce County suburbs.
The Sound Transit measure — which was passing overall despite losing in Pierce County — will raise property taxes, car-tab fees and the sales tax rate throughout the Sound Transit taxing district, which includes suburbs such as South Hill and Orting.
Pierce County has that gritty Tacoma story. Part of that probably fit really with how Trump won this election, by persuading previously Democratic blue-collar voters to switch over.
Alex Hays, Republican political consultant from Tacoma
“Those areas are not nearly as favorable to public transportation,” Anderstone said. “If this had been a Tacoma vote, it would have passed easily.”
As of Friday, the Sound Transit 3 measure — which was backed by many Puget Sound Democrats — was winning the support of 44 percent of Pierce County voters.
A 2008 Sound Transit proposition to expand buses and commuter rail received more support, winning about 49 percent of the vote in Pierce County.
Nowadays, Hays said, Republicans running for statewide offices such as governor and attorney general are focused on Pierce County as an area they can and must win by a few points.
Years ago, that would have been unthinkable, he said.
“Pierce County was a county Republicans expected to lose heavily 20 years ago, because of that working class, blue collar, Democratic vote,” Hays said.
“A good Republican campaign expects to prevail in Pierce County now.”