There will be a lot of discussion in the coming months about who is going to win the mayor’s race and why. Everyone thinks they are a political consultant, mostly based on the fact they own a complete DVD box set of “The West Wing.” This column makes an attempt to identify what will matter most in the mayoral contest, and what won’t. If appropriate, it will also rate both McGinn and Murray on how they are doing in the respective areas. If anything is missed, please eviscerate this piece in the comments, as per usual.
There is no topic in campaigns that will make a consultant or campaign worker want to jump out the window of their crappy office faster than the sentence, “we need more yard signs” or “ [candidate spouse name here] was driving through town and did not see any of our signs.”
Yard. Signs. Don't.Vote.
They also don’t make people vote for you. They also suck up way, way, way too much campaign time better spent on, I don’t know, things that matter in the race like getting more people to vote for you.
A candidate can plaster a city in their signs and it does nothing more than make them and their supporters feel better. Hilariously, it might make their opponent demand that their staff needs to do more signs as well. Seattle campaigns in the 70s and 80s spent way too much time and resources on yard signs.
The only exception to this law is that when someone actually puts up a sign up in their yard—as opposed to medians along the highway—it might make someone think for a moment about a candidate in a new way. Heavy stress on the word, “might.”
Candidate Grade on yard signs:
McGinn: A. He doesn't seem too obsessed with them ... though, McGinn's indie and agitprop sticker effort—on bike racks for crying out loud!—gives off a convincing insurgent, grassroots message.
Murray: A-. He's not too obsessed, but I am seeing a few in medians around town. Don’t fall for it Ed.
On the opposite side of the spectrum of campaign foreshadowing are the primary maps. Both PubliCola and the Seattle Times published their own versions earlier this week. The maps show that voters are starting to figure out which candidate is theirs. And what we saw this year fit along very predictable and historically constant lines.
Think of Seattle like two circles, one bigger and one smaller. The bigger circle is the homes that have views of the Sound and Lake Washington and tend to be older and richer. This circle votes for the candidates that get the Times and Chamber endorsements. The inner circle is younger, and poorer. This circle votes for the candidates that tend to be backed by labor and endorsed by the Stranger.
These two circles, going back to Royer vs. Schell in the 70s pick their candidates based on these rules and have done so again. Murray dominated the outer circle and, to a lesser extent, McGinn owned the inner circle.
Can Murray push inward and pick up this younger base? Can McGinn push out and convince these more conservative voters he can represent them? The challenge for both candidates if if they can expand their circle. Can Murray push inward and pick up this younger base? Can McGinn push out and convince these more conservative voters he can represent them? This is really what both campaigns are focused on right now, no matter what they say publicly. Battle grounds are transition areas like Queen Anne, above N 85th Street, and the eastern side of West Seattle. There are likely others as well.
Historically, and every McGinn supporter will tell you this until you run out of the room, the inner circle candidate wins the mayor’s race. McGinn, Nickels, Rice, and Royer. One exception: Schell beat Chong in 1997, though, in McGinn's favor, Chong was not the strongest of candidates. However, neither was Mallahan in '09 (sorry, McGinn).
PubliCola's map also turned up another factor: Harrell’s good numbers in the SE Seattle—closer to the city line. These precincts tend to be more liberal leaning and will usually go to the inner-circle candidate. If McGinn grabs Harrell's voters—and McGinn does do better with minority voters than Murray—it could make a big difference.
No grades here, but some observations:
Despite all of Murray’s objections that he's too liberal to be the “establishment candidate,” he remains the suit in the eyes of voters. It is not a statement on his record—and unlike Mallahan, he's hardly an empty suit—it's simply who he appeals to. His long record as a liberal legislator, particularly on gay marriage, could help him here. But McGinn has done a great job defining Murray so far.
OK, OK, McGinn's the inner circle candidate, but can he move beyond that? Is there a ceiling to his support? (There was supposedly a ceiling heading into the primary—low 20s—and he hushed the Murray party by crashing through that ceiling with 27 percent on election night.)
But what happened to his older conservative voters from 2009, who liked the fiscally conservative tunnel stance? West Seattle and Blue Ridge seem to have left for Murray. How does McGinn get them back?
Money matters. It really matters. Without it, this would have been a McGinn/Steinbrueck general election.
Can it win an election? A qualified yes. There are campaign contribution limits ($700 a race). And because of these limits, the inner circle candidates have always been able to pull out a close victory. Think of it this way: McGinn is the fundraising tortoise to Murray’s rabbit.
People assume Murray will dwarf McGinn with cash. Murray will certainly do better, but don't underestimate McGinn. His numbers aren't too shabby: He's raised $312,000, with an average donation of $213, and almost 1,500 contributors.
Moreover, given that McGinn's the incumbent, he doesn't need as much money as Murray to get his message out. McGinn, with the city departments at his beck and call, can put out policy statements and press releases to get the mayor in front of the cameras all day long.
That said ...
Murray's fundraising prowess is unmatched in city history and propelled him to the general. His cash flow turned a relatively unknown politician into a contender. So far, it's his strongest asset. He's raised $445,000 to date with an average contribution of $228—and nearly 2,000 donors.
Both candidates also have independent expenditures getting their backs. A labor effort behind McGinn that's raised about $65,000 so far, and a largely-chamber-backed effort behind Murray that's raised $130,000 so far. This is a new twist in city elections. It's unclear how it will play out, but ultimately, both candidates will have money to spend.
Field is the least understood part of campaigns. In a nutshell, campaigns target likely supporters who are unlikely voters and used techniques such as phone banking and door belling to ensure they vote. A smaller part of field is talking to undecided voters and providing information to persuade them to your side and then ensuring they vote.
Only those actually part of a campaign, working on field efforts, even know if their effort is effective. Also, it is a real question who understands field less, candidates or reporters. In the runup to the primary election, there was a flurry of pieces with naïve reporters taking campaigns at face value that they had effective field efforts (PubliCola, this means you). Who really knows? Did those reporters go out doorbelling for a few days? No.
Field, at its zenith, which is rarely reached, adds one to two percent of votes to your total. That’s it. In a tight race, it really matters, if you are going to win by a mile, it’s not needed. Also, for all the fascination with phone banks by all campaigns, there is empirical data that it has a minor effect on unlikely voter behavior.
This 2002 Yale study says that low turnout municipal races are helped by field efforts but that canvassing (door knocking) is the most effective way to reach voters, maybe even the only effective way to increase voter turnout. This is an interesting fact given all the reporting on phonebanks during the primary.
Candidate Grades: Hard to say.
Without really being part of a campaign there is no way to discern if any candidate is doing field effectively. That said, Murray’s outer circle voters are much more likely to vote without reminders. McGinn’s are much less likely. McGinn will likely need a strong field effort to be reelected.
If there's potential for a surprise narrative in this campaign, it could be Murray's field. While McGinn's ground game was outstanding in '09, and will most likely be again, McGinn's campaign would be making a mistake if they assumed they're dealing with another Mallahan operation. Murray, who brought in the successful R-71 machinery, shouldn't be underestimated on this front.
KING 5 Polling
There was a lot of criticism of the KING 5 poll from the know-it-alls of politics…and that is all of us. They have missed some races wildly, including the mayoral primary in 2009 and the mayoral General in 2001 by six points at the end. That said, there is some method to the madness of randomly dialing 1000 people. They tend to catch large trends in voter sentiment, but miss the nuanced changes in a tight race.
When they post new numbers, all of the political class in Seattle stops and looks. Take it as an interesting data point, but not worth freaking out over either way, that poll has broken many a candidate’s heart only to have the voters put it back together.
After yard signs, endorsements are probably the thing campaigns waste most of their time on. Have you ever voted for one politician because another politician endorsed them? A union? The Chamber? Yet candidates and these organizations still play out this charade. If an organization can bring a lot of money or volunteers to a race then yes, it is worth the extended courting that goes on. But so many give nothing more than their name.
Still, some endorsements are helpful. The Seattle Times editorial page is of fading significance, but in the mostly ignored primary race, their Murray endorsement clearly helped consolidate his support as the anti-McGinn candidate. Conversely, the Stranger helped McGinn keep his anti-establishment crown. Proof that the Stranger endorsement matters: Kshama Sawant’s 35 percent showing against longtime incumbent Richard Conlin in the primary with almost no name ID or money spent.
McGinn has gotten enough elected officials—state Sens. Bob Hasegawa (D-11, SE Seattle), Reps. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37, SE Seattle), Zack Hudgins (D-11, SE Seattle), and King County Council member Larry Gossett— to save face after a term burning bridges. He has also gotten Union endorsements from the ones that work and spend money.
And again, the Stranger endorsement probably solidified his base more than any other act. One lingering question is if the Sierra Club's national PAC—the Sierra Club has endorsed McGinn—is looking to play in this race at all.
Murray has collected the (mixed-blessing in Seattle) establishment endorsements—the Times, the Chamber, and City Council members.
Footnote here: If Murray actually continues to pick up council member endorsements, the "establishment" message could give way to a more complicated picture for the incumbent, helping Murray's line that McGinn isn't in a position to lead the city. Meanwhile, Murray's also picked up some progressive endorsements—Planned Parenthood, Teamsters 117, the Washington Conservation Voters, and the Young Democrats—that make McGinn's line of attack trickier to pull off.
Seattle Campaign History
A few weeks ago, many beleived McGinn wasn't even going to make it through the pimary. Indeed, just a year ago, McGinn was supposed to be toast. That's why eight candidates jumped into the primary to challenge him. However, there are only two candidates left. And one of them is most definitely Mike McGinn. There are two competing themes for historical views on this mayor’s race. One is that McGinn's near 30 percent in the primary means 70 percent of the city rejected him. The other is that McGinn is the inner circle candidate and they always win.
McGinn got under 30 percent.
This theory was being bounced about by everyone including (a “where-are-they-now” moment) former City Council member Jim Compton, until the Times dug up the fact that Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman got only 30 percent in the primary and went on to win again as mayor. (Apparently Times reporter Jim Brunner is the only reporter in Seattle allowed to use Google.)
There were three major candidates shooting at McGinn in the primary. Does that mean Steinbrueck and Harrell voters are going to Murray? Not likely, or at least not without a fight. Those inner circle precincts that did well for them also did well for McGinn. The focus on just McGinn and Murray in the general election, including televised debates will give the Mayor another bite at the voter’s apple. The debates could be big wins for McGinn (a commanding trial attorney) when it comes to winning voters back. In 2009, for example, McGinn's knockout performance on the KING 5 debate, which was aired the day ballots arrived at many homes, began his slow decline.
Inner Circle Always Wins
Yes, historically, the inner circle candidate wins the mayor’s race. That said, as I've noted, Murray is not the usual outer circle candidate. He has more progressive history than Mallahan and lacks the right wing record of Sidran (though as PubliCola pointed out ... he did endorse Sidran). There is no reason he cannot push the circle in to pick up enough votes to win.
And that leads to the bottom line: Whichever candidate can nudge into the other one's circle wins it. Can Murray chip away at McGinn's liberal inner circle? Yes. Can McGinn, with his headstart on Harrell's voters, chip away at the outer circle? Yes. Both candidates have a path to victory.
And that may be the biggest story here of all. A few weeks ago, many beleived McGinn wasn't even going to make it through the primary. Indeed, just a year ago, McGinn was supposed to be toast. That's why eight candidates jumped into the primary to challenge him. However, there are only two candidates left. And one of them is most definitely Mike McGinn.