2014's #7 Most Read: Seattle as liberal bastion? Think again.

Heat-mapping our political geography reveals some surprises about America
Heat-mapping our political geography reveals some surprises about America

Editor's Note: As the year ends, we are counting down the most-read stories of 2014. This article, No. 7 on the list, was origingally published on Jan. 21.

On a cold evening in late October 2012, voters across Seattle hopped into their late-model Toyota Camrys and set out on a mission.

Crosscut archive image.From Westwood Village to Northgate, they parked at their coffee shops of choice, grabbed their mail-in ballots from the backseat and strode purposefully past two new condo developments and a pet salon. They entered the café to the sounds of Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up,” ordered their non-fat hazelnut latte, opened their ballots and voted for every progressive measure possible.

President Obama’s re-election —  check
Same-sex marriage — approved
Legal pot — on every street corner, if possible!
And, of course, a “yes” vote for every progressive tax and public levy.

Tucking their finished ballots into their signature envelopes, Seattle’s electorate sipped their lattes and stared thoughtfully out the window. What a wonderful day to be truly progressive, they thought. Maybe I should buy a fixed-gear bicycle.

This is the stereotypical view of Seattle’s median voter. According to the conventional wisdom, Seattle’s electorate is full of fiery, uncompromising progressives. They elect socialist councilmembers, gay mayors, and fully endorse the Wars on Christmas, cars and brown bags, both tangible and verbal. Seattle isn’t merely liberal, says this conventional wisdom, it is lock-step liberalism at its most homogenous.

There’s a small problem with this argument: it’s not really true. In reality, Seattle is a city marked by fierce internal divisions — on social policy, taxation, local issues, and just about everything. Certainly, Seattle is a staunchly Democratic city with a heavy liberal tilt.  However, outside of a few neighborhoods, different conceptualizations of “liberalism” flourish. The liberalism of Fremont is not like the liberalism of the Rainier Valley is not like the liberalism of Laurelhurst.

For this analysis, I analyzed precinct results for every Seattle election since November 2008. I limited my analysis to races that demonstrated division along ideological or geographic lines. In total, 47 ballot items made the cut. Each of these ballot items was sorted into four categories – partisan issues (Democrat vs. Republican), social issues, fiscal/tax issues, and local candidate races. 

Results were tabulated for each of Seattle’s 951 voting precincts.Each precinct was assigned a score in all four categories. A score of 100 indicates that the precinct has the strongest progressive voting history in Seattle, while a score of 0 indicates the most conservative record.

The results were stark: although some precincts appeared near the top of all four lists, others had drastically varying positions. Some of Seattle’s bluest neighborhoods have remarkable conservative streaks on taxation, cultural issues, or municipal politics. With these results, I’ve mapped the real extents, and limits, of “Seattle liberalism.”


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Seattle is a very Democratic city: for every Mitt Romney voter, there were 6 Barack Obama voters. Still, Romney actually won one precinct — Broadmoor in Madison Park, where he received 56 percent to Obama’s 43 percent. Elsewhere, Republicans, especially further down the ticket, have historically been competitive. Windermere, Laurelhurst, Madison Park, and the Magnolia Bluffs are all dotted with fairweather GOP precincts with substantial conservative minorities. A total of 49 precincts in these areas scored under 50 on the 100-point scale of Democratic partisanship. That’s not many, but it’s enough to make Republicans a significant minority in Seattle’s electorate.

Generally, Seattle’s most Republican-friendly precincts are affluent and located near water view areas. They are rife with “Sam Reed Democrats”: voters who would be hard-pressed to find a Republican Presidential candidate they support, but who are willing to vote for Republicans for technocratic positions. Many of these Democrats crossed party lines to vote for Reed and Rob McKenna in 2008 and Dan Satterberg in 2007, with some supporting competitive Republicans like Kim Wyman and Dino Rossi.

Beyond the wealthy enclaves, higher levels of Republican support are also evident in residential parts of West Seattle; in portions of North Seattle with lots of older, long-term residents; in precincts dominated by retirement homes; and in the University of Washington’s Frat Row area.

Seattle’s most Democratic precincts are clustered around Capitol Hill, the Central District, and some of Seattle’s most non-white precincts in the Rainier Valley. 

Tax issues

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If the partisanship map follows predictable lines, tax voting in Seattle is a bit of an unholy alliance. The most Republican voters in Seattle, the country club set, also tend to be the strongest fiscal conservatives. However, some of the most Democratic areas also flare red on the tax map.

Pay particular notion to South Seattle, especially the Rainier Valley and Delridge, which forms the southeast corner of West Seattle.  These are very Democratic communities, but with a strong anti-tax streak. The same pattern crops up in North Seattle, especially around Lake City and Northgate.

What do these areas have in common?  They tend to be of lower socioeconomic status, and have high minority populations. Case in point: one precinct in Rainier Valley’s Brighton neighborhood gave 86 percent to President Obama, but rejected the 2009 bag tax by over 90percent. This Brighton precinct is 95percent non-white, and among Seattle’s poorest. Seattle’s poor do not especially like taxes. This pattern applies not only to regressive bag taxes, but also to school levies, transit funding, and even propositions on social services for the poor.  In Seattle, Tim Eyman's "two-thirds on taxes" laws poll best with the very wealthy and the very poor.

This all makes Seattle's poorest precincts among its most conservative on tax issues. The aforementioned Brighton precinct, for instance, scored only 19 on the 100-point scale of tax liberalism. When it comes to tax hikes, Seattle's poor are skeptical at best.

This demonstrates an ugly truth about Washington’s tax structure: social services are funded disproportionately off the backs of the working poor. Seattle’s working voters know this. They’re not only ambivalent about sales tax increases, but oftentimes actively allergic to them. Seattle may have a strong record of passing safety net measures, but it does so in a way that fails to earn support from the voters most likely to need that safety net.

Social issues

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Passing marijuana legalization and marriage equality in the same year made Washington the new Massachusetts — a go-to example of progressivism for the nation and regular recipient of hackneyed Amsterdam jokes. In turn, that made Seattle the new San Francisco. In fact, Seattle may have out-San Francisco’ed San Francisco: Its support for marriage equality (82 percent) easily outpaced that of the City by the Bay (75 percent).

Still, Seattle’s social liberalism comes with some dissent. Nearly one-in-five Seattle voters opposed same-sex marriage, while over one-in-four voted against legal pot and physician-assisted suicide. Not surprisingly, Capitol Hill was the leading bastion for social liberalism overall, followed closely by North Seattle neighborhoods like Fremont and Wallingford.  he dissent came from the City’s far north and far south. Even more than on taxes, there’s a big division here along socioeconomic lines.

The previous map on tax issues reveals some of the socioeconomic divisions in Seattle, but the social issues map makes them flare up even more boldly. Seattle’s affluent, educated neighborhoods tend to be even more socially liberal than they are Democratic — and they’re generally very Democratic. In the tony Washington Park neighborhood, located just south of Madison Park near the Seattle Tennis Club, an easy majority of Romney voters supported same-sex marriage. Nationwide, that level of social liberalism is virtually unheard of among Republicans anywhere.

On the other end of the spectrum, Seattle’s poor, non-white precincts often return punishing results for social issues. The Rainier Valley lights up on this map like a Christmas tree. The Brighton precinct, which has a high number of Muslim voters, roughly tied Yesler Terrace for a 0 on the social liberalism score. These precincts rejected same-sex marriage (63 percent and 60 percent against, respectively); were mixed on assisted suicide (53 percent Yes and 59 percent No); and demonstrated tepid support for legal pot (51 percent Yes and 53 percent Yes). Elevated opposition was found among all minority communities, from the native-born black population of Rainier Valley to the Asian-American areas of Beacon Hill.

Elsewhere, social conservatives are most prevalent in precincts with lots of senior citizens, working-class voters, and minorities. A few wealthy precincts in Magnolia and West Seattle also show up as red. The Republican Party may have driven well-to-do, educated urbanites away with social policy over the past decade, but there are still a few rock-ribbed conservatives among the wealthy.

Local issues

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I have argued before that candidate races in Seattle regularly come down to competition between two blocs of voters: the “liberal bloc,” which tends to be younger, lower-income, and reside in urbanized neighborhoods; and the “conservative bloc,” which skews older, wealthier, and is concentrated in highly residential areas, often ones with nice views and pricy real estate.

Unsurprisingly, I received push-back on this from people who asserted that Richard Conlin, Ed Murray, and other “conservative bloc” candidates are hardly personally conservative. True enough!

However, let the map here put to rest any doubt that “conservative bloc” voters are not, by Seattle terms, conservative. In fact, support for “conservative bloc” candidates was the single strongest statistical predictor for a precinct’s partisanship. If you’d like to estimate a Seattleite’s willingness to vote for a Republican, don’t ask them how they feel about same-sex marriage or public financing. Ask them if they voted for Joe Mallahan. (Mike McGinn's opponent in the 2009 Seattle mayor's race.)

On the local level, the polarization between wealthy, “outer-ring” neighborhoods, and “inner-ring” neighborhoods is even more stark.  Laurelhurst, Magnolia, Madison Park, and other wealthy areas are bright-red. They’re joined in the conservative bloc by much of Queen Anne, West Seattle, Downtown, View Ridge, Sunset Hill, and other neighborhoods that don’t show up red on any of the other maps.  When it comes to local races, wealthy progressives prefer more conservative candidates. I’ve heard myriad theories for this “conservative bloc” voting, from rich Seattleites preferring managerial types, to single-family home dwellers rejecting cycle tracks. But one thing is clear: It’s a big, glaring division in Seattle politics.

Another interesting phenomenon: when it comes to candidate choices, Seattle’s working-class seem to prefer their politicians progressive. Areas like South Seattle and Delridge may be somewhat hesitant to fully endorse social progressivism or higher taxes, but they love liberal candidates. Columbia City edged out famously-liberal Fremont on the 100-point progressivism index for local races (79 to Fremont’s 78), with South Park (73) not far behind.

Seattle’s working-class evidently want progressive politicians. Election results suggest, however, that they’d prefer socioeconomic justice come in some other form besides sales tax hikes.

Mapping progressive Seattle

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Putting these four categories together, we finally arrive at a snapshot of Seattle’s varied progressivism. Here are a handful of sectors — Cap Hill, the Central District, inner North Seattle and areas around Columbia City — that are roundly progressive across all categories. In turn, they show up as deep-blue on this overall map.

The reds are thinner on the ground. Broadmoor shows up as deep red, only earning a progressive score above 0 because of social issues. The other conservative precincts are a mix. Some (the wealthy areas) are libertarian-leaning, with permissive social views but deep skepticism of taxes. Others (the working areas) love progressive candidates, but tend to balk at big social change, cultural or economic.

The result is one hell of a map. There’s a lot of blue here, reflecting a city where liberals have a resounding advantage.  However, a lot of that blue is of the pale variety. For a town whose national reputation is defined by a progressive agenda, Seattle’s electorate is complex and oftentimes conflicted. With the crucial battle over the $15 minimum wage on the horizon, Seattle’s politicos would be wise to look past lazy conventional wisdoms, and heed reality.

All heat maps by Benjamin Anderstone. Space Needle photo courtesy of terrellcwoods/Flickr.


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