SEATTLE — Bruce Danielson, a little-known Seattle lawyer, didn’t campaign a lick in his failed effort to unseat Washington Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez. He raised no money, met with no newspaper editorial boards, attended no candidate forums.
And yet, more than 315,000 people voted for him in Tuesday’s primary.
Danielson won 30 of the state’s 39 counties, taking 42 percent of the vote, even though Gonzalez was deemed extremely well qualified by those who evaluated him and endorsed by both major candidates for governor.
How did Danielson perform so well? One explanation, said University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto, was his name.
“When voters find themselves with very limited information, that’s when names and race absolutely factor in,” Barreto said. “They’ll try to infer positions about the candidates by their names, and they’ll misapply stereotypes to the candidates.
“Danielson was benefitting a bit from voters voting against Gonzalez,” he said.
In judicial elections, candidates who win more than 50 percent of the primary vote advance unopposed to the general election. Any time there’s a two-person race, and voters know little about either candidate, results typically are close, Barreto said. Some voters pick one candidate, some pick the other.
Barreto said he plans to analyze the race more closely later this month once results are available by precinct, rather than by county. But one trend strongly suggests that a subtle anti-Hispanic bias played a factor in Danielson’s showing: In a number of counties, he outperformed Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.
Many of the counties Danielson won typically vote Republican. If voters had learned about Danielson’s conservative legal philosophy from his website or candidate statement, and had voted for him because he was a conservative, his results would likely have tracked more closely with McKenna’s, Barreto said.
Because of budget cuts, the Secretary of State’s Office did not produce a statewide voters pamphlet for the primary. Four counties did so for statewide races: King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish. In those four counties, Gonzalez trounced Danielson.
Elsewhere, voters had to take the extra step of going online to see the candidates’ statements. Many older voters might not be so tech-savvy, and older people tend to vote more regularly, Gonzalez noted.
“My take is very simple: When voters have good information, they make good decisions,” Gonzalez said.
“I don’t understand if they were voting for my opponent, or against me,” he said. “I went around the state to talk to people; he didn’t. I attended editorial board meetings and judicial forums; he didn’t. Yet 42 percent of voters thought he should be on the Supreme Court. I’m curious as to why.”
Though Gonzalez is a sitting Supreme Court justice, he was appointed to the bench in January, and was not well known beyond King County, where he was a Superior Court judge for a decade. He received every major newspaper endorsement.
Danielson denied that his performance had anything to do with his name or anti-Hispanic bias.
“I’ve been called a bigot and everything else just because I’m running against a guy named Gonzalez,” he said. “I think it had no significant effect whatsoever. If anything, I think it probably hurt me in the Puget Sound region.
“Philosophical differences are largely what accounted for the difference in our vote totals,” he said.
His decision not to campaign was principled, he said. He did not want to raise money because of the possibility of creating a conflict of interest, whereas Gonzalez accepted campaign contributions from Indian tribes, unions and other groups that could come before the court.
Judicial forums are nothing but popularity contests, he said, and speaking with newspaper editorial boards is a waste of time because they don’t understand enough about the law to ask intelligent questions.
The phenomenon of voters picking candidates with the more common name isn’t new. In 1990, little-known Charles W. Johnson beat respected incumbent Washington Supreme Court Justice Keith Callow, and in 1995, Richard Sanders, who had been deemed “not qualified” by the King County Bar Association, beat Rosselle Pekelis, the state’s second Jewish justice.
One of the most infamous examples in recent years came in 2005, when Randy Hale won a seat on the Riverside, Calif., school board while in jail for a parole violation. He beat Christina M. Wilking-Gervais and Charles Soria.
Despite his opponent’s showing, Gonzalez said he’s pleased to be keeping his job. “This is the first time someone with a Latino surname has ever been elected statewide in the state of Washington,” he said. “So, it’s progress.”