Mayor Mike McGinn's performance in the primary—a 28 percent second-place finish to challenger Ed Murray, who got 30 percent—was somewhere between anemic and terrible for an incumbent mayor and is further evidence that McGinn will be a one-term mayor. 

Ed Murray’s campaign points to the primary results and sees 73 percent of Seattle voters want a new mayor. McGinn loyalists counter that it appears that 70 percent of Seattle voters don’t want Murray as mayor either.

Since we spilled some ink last week examining the McGinn camp’s positive spin, let’s play out the argument that his primary performance puts him in the “Dead Man Walking” category. Instead of relying too heavily upon opinion and conjecture, let’s just take a look at past elections in Seattle and see what the numbers tell us.

ElectionNerd looked at every municipal primary in Seattle as far back as King County Elections has published results online—from the present day back through 1999. For comparative purposes, we were only interested in those elections that included a primary (races with just two filed candidates go straight to the November general election). That gave us 27 municipal citywide races from 1999 to 2011. 

Of those 27, we decided to focus only on those races in which the incumbent (whether it’s a mayor, council member or city attorney – they all run citywide) scored below 50 percent in the primary but still advanced to the general. (In 2009 and 2001, the incumbent lost in the primary). Why? Because McGinn scored well below 50 percent as the incumbent in the 2013 mayoral primary, and we want to examine the argument that races with multiple primary opponents are essentially a referendum on the incumbent. Is that true? Do incumbents who finish below 50 percent in the primary go on to lose in the general? 

That narrowed it down to 11 races in which the incumbent scored below 50 percent in the primary, but advanced to the general.McGinn’s 28 percent puts him more than 10 points below the worst “winning” primary performance in recent years. In fact, his primary performance is worse than most of those in our sample who went on to lose the general.

Finishing Second is a First

First thing’s first:  If the election returns trend hold for ballots yet to be counted in this primary, McGinn will be the only incumbent Seattle mayor in the last 15 years to advance to the general and not finish first in the primary. In other words, during that period, every other incumbent either finished first in the primary or, in the case of Greg Nickels in 2009 and Paul Schell in 2001, finished third and failed to qualify for the general. Win or lose in the general, McGinn’s primary performance is already breaking new historic ground.

Finishing Below 50 Percent in the Primary is not an Automatic Death Sentence

It's hard for a challenger to beat an incumbent, even when primary voters seem to be revolting. Of the 11 incumbents who finished south of 50 percent in the primary, six won and five lost in the general election.  

But 28 Percent Is Really Bad

The worst primary performance in our comparison races of any incumbent who then went on to win in the general was 39 percent. In 2005, then-city council member Richard McIver faced two relatively strong opponents in the primary from outgoing King County Council member Dwight Pelz and business darling Robert Rosencrantz. McIver picked up 14 points in the general to retain his council seat with a 53-46 win over Pelz.Instead of warily eyeing Murray from his rear-view mirror, McGinn has to take an unprecedented view over his handlebars to see his challenger out in front of him.

McGinn’s 28 percent puts him more than 10 points below the worst “winning” primary performance in recent years. In fact, his primary performance is worse than most of those in our sample who went on to lose the general. Of the five losers in our sample (those incumbents who advanced to the general, but lost reelection), the average primary performance was 37 percent; their median performance was 39.

In fact, McGinn’s 28 percent outperforms only one incumbent in our sample—then-city council member Judy Nicastro limped through the primary with 25 in 2003, in the midst of the Strippergate scandal. And now we have octogenarian Jean Godden on council.

But Ed  Only Got 30 Percent! 

How does challenger Ed Murray’s 30 percent compare to the performance of our comparison challengers? For starters, remember that we already said that McGinn is the only incumbent to have finished second in the primary, so in every case our comparable challengers had fewer primary votes than the incumbent. Meanwhile, Murray is making history by finishing first (ballots yet to be tallied could still mathematically put him in second, but that's unlikely).

So we’re not expecting our challengers to have put up big numbers in the primary—and they haven't. Probably not surprisingly, the top-ranked challengers who ultimately defeated the incumbent fared better in the primary than those challengers who went on to lose in the general. Losing challengers averaged 26.5 percent in the primary, with a median of 25.5 percent. “Winning” challengers averaged 30 percent in the primary—the same percentage as Ed Murray.  

“Objects in Rear-View Mirror Are Closer than They Appear”

Another trend that popped in our examination of the 11 comparable races is that those incumbents who go on to lose their re-election had a narrower spread between themselves and their top challenger in the primary than that of incumbents who ultimately won. Incumbents who scored below 50 percent in the primary but won reelection outperformed their top-ranked challenger in the primary by an average of 16.83 points.

Compare that to the incumbents who went on to lose—heir top challengers were on average only 7.2 percent behind them in the primary. McGinn wishes Murray was 7.2 percent behind him. Instead of warily eyeing Murray from his rear-view mirror, McGinn has to take an unprecedented view over his handlebars to see his challenger out in front of him.

Gains in the General Favor the Challenger

With the lesser candidates swept away, the race narrows to a two-person battle in the general. As a result, both candidates will see significant percentage gains over their performance in the primary.  McGinn’s 28 percent in the primary is by no means a ceiling. Murray will not pick up all of the anti-McGinn votes in the primary and win with 72 percent.  So what should they expect to gain?  

It is fair to categorize our 11 sample incumbents as “weak.” After all, they failed to achieve 50 percent in the primary despite incumbency. While both incumbent and challenger are expected to make percentage gains in the general, the gains historically favor challengers over “weak” incumbents. The average improvement in the general by a “weak” incumbent in our sample was 11.9 percent, whereas top-ranked challengers to those incumbents improved by an average of 19.27 percent in the general.

No election is “average”; every race is unique.  Something unprecedented could happen in this general election—just as something unprecedented already occurred in the primary.  But it’s always best to have a firm understanding of the past when you’re arguing with your friends and enemies over predictions for the future.


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