The latest ElectionNerd analysis from one of our anonymous super hacks. —Eds.
There’s nothing like seeing the results of a real political poll. Not to bash SurveyUSA quickies with rounded percentages, but an expensive and extensive professional poll does so much more to reveal the likely result of an upcoming election.
I was shown just such a poll examining the ebbing popularity of then-Seattle mayor Paul Schell in 2001. His total support was in the low 20s and his negatives were twice his positives.
But that wasn’t his most painful number: According to the poll, the combined percentage of respondents who didn’t know who Schell was or had formed no opinion of his performance was 5 percent.
That’s the challenge for a big city incumbent. Most campaigns work to introduce the candidate to voters, build name recognition, and craft a generally positive public image by Election Day. In contrast, a big-city mayor running for re-election is known by voters and has already been judged. A reasonable primary ceiling for McGinn is about 25 percent. That will likely be enough to put him in the top two, but if he survives the primary, it would be appropriate to offer our soon-to-be-ex-mayor both congratulations and condolences.
Let’s use three Survey USA/King 5 polls of the Seattle mayor’s race—conducted in March, May, and mid-July—to show the results of voter pre-judging.
Mayor Mike McGinn’s 19 percent March showing didn’t impress anyone, but gave the Sierra Club set at least a glimmer of hope: The mayor finished first, several points ahead of Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess. And more than one-third of voters were undecided (37 percent). If you tuck quitter Burgess’ 11 points back into the mix, that’s 49 percent undecided.
By May, the undecideds were halved to 25 percent and McGinn had risen just 3 points—still enough to hold the lead with 22 percent support. But not only did each of his major opponents score bigger gains (from Murray’s 5 points to Bruce Harrell’s 8 points), even the backing for minor candidates rose by 6 points, or twice McGinn’s pickup. An unpopular incumbent simply gets the smallest share of the votes breaking out of the undecided column—in McGinn’s case, about 12 percent of the total.
What kind of primary numbers does an incumbent need to get reelected? The general political rule of thumb is 46 percent support. Why 46 percent? Probably because it’s real, real close to 50 percent +1. People who vote against incumbents in a primary have a strong tendency to do the same in the final election. Clever campaigning can pick up a few percentage points between primary and final elections, but not much more than that.
Schell and Greg Nickels, the last two Seattle mayors to be shown the door, didn’t even survive the primary, but we can use at the numbers from the 2003 council races—in which three incumbents lost re-election bids—to see the trend. That year, incumbents Judy Nicastro, Margaret Pageler, and Heidi Wills collected 25 percent, 38 percent, and 43 percent respectively in their primary races. Each lost in the final by between 3 and 8 percentage points. Nicastro's comeback in the general election was quite impressive, by the way, but still wasn’t enough to keep her in office.
Given the latest numbers, a reasonable primary ceiling for Mike McGinn would be about 25 percent. That will likely be enough to put him in the top two behind Murray, but if he survives the primary, it would be appropriate to offer our soon-to-be-ex-mayor both congratulations and condolences.