The demographics that may determine City Council primaries

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The year was 2004. The nation was flooding theaters to see The Notebook. An obscure web site called was launching from a Massachusetts dorm room. And, of course, the nation was agog about soccer moms.

Remember “soccer moms,” that crucial demographic of married women between 25 and 50? The voters who, harried by their demanding schedule and ostensibly ceaseless fears of terrorism and economic insecurity, were expected to trudge to the polls and cast decisive votes?

It probably won’t surprise many of you to learn that political scientists consider the whole soccer mom thing a silly construction of the press. Yes, women between 25 and 45 vote. Yes, a decent number of them are swing voters. But their turnout levels weren’t unusual in 2004, nor were they remarkably likely to be undecided. We technically don’t know how soccer moms voted – alas, the exit polls don’t ask about minivan ownership or willingness to tolerate tweens – but the broader 25-to-50 female demographic ended up voting for John Kerry.  Obviously, that hardly proved decisive. In most elections, no demographic is a silver bullet.

Seattle’s 2015 city council elections may be different.  With the adoption of the hybrid district/at large system in 2013, seven of nine council seats will be decided by only one-seventh of the city’s population. Furthermore, with as many as nine candidates running in some districts, the votes are heavily divided. Suddenly, a few thousand votes and 20 percent of the electorate could feasibly get a candidate to the General Election in the fall. Forget soccer moms; suddenly groups under 10 percent of the population could be pivotal. Even Republicans (!).

I decided to dust off the data from my previous Crosscut article with Knute Berger, “Meet the Districts,” and take a look at which voter blocs could matter in each of five competitive district races. The data show they may be the cohorts that shape our next City Council.

District 1: Establishment voters

I wrote in “Meet the Districts” that District 1, which includes West Seattle and South Park, has a bit of a pro-establishment lean. That’s no surprise. This is a largely middle-class district with many families, and the most moderate electorate in the city. This is an area where candidates endorsed by the Seattle Times and business orgs tend to do well. The voters wouldn’t self-identify as establishment (who would?), but in the end, many tend to look for moderates with strong credentials and institutional support.

With nine candidates, though, the “establishment” mantle is up for grabs. Lisa Herbold and Brianna Thomas have done a lot to consolidate the traditionally lefty profile. For once, though, the moderate bloc is more divided. Shannon Braddock, who has also received support from liberal orgs, is endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce's PAC. The Seattle Times’ dark-horse endorsement of attorney Phillip Tavel further divides the electorate. And while neighborhood activist Chas Redmond isn’t really “establishment,” his candidate profile traditionally performs well among more moderate, change-skeptical voters.

It appears likely that at least one of these “establishment” candidates will make it through, setting us up for a more traditional face-off in the fall. For now, though, the low number of votes necessary for advancement (perhaps well under 5,000), combined with the unusually divided electorate, makes this moderate-leaning group a major x-factor.

District 2: Affordability voters

I previously wrote that D2, which primarily encompasses Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley, is Seattle’s most distinct district. It’s majority-minority, working-class, and has many Democratic voters who vote their pocketbook on tax issues. I suggested that, some day, the mix of lefty voters and pocketbook voters might result in big fireworks. Good thing I emphasized the “some day” part.

This year, Seattle’s most distinct district doesn’t have its most distinct race. So far, Tammy Morales’ challenge of incumbent Councilmember Bruce Harrell is similar to spirited efforts of past. Morales self-identifies as a “true progressive,” and speaks widely about affordability, but not in the context of tax burdens. It’s long-shot candidate Josh Farris, an anti-eviction activist with connections to the Socialist Alternative Party, who explicitly mentions property taxes as contributing to an affordability crunch.

No doubt, affordability will continue to be a major issue in this race. For now, it appears that both Harrell and Morales are approaching the taxes from a traditionally liberal perspective: building infrastructure and social services, even if it requires regressive taxes. That is smart, considering that the middle-class electorate here is quite liberal.  However, with a $930 million property tax measure headed to the fall ballot, watch for the candidates to make overtures to voters who feel themselves swimming against the financial tide.

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District 3: Lower-turnout renters

There are a few important things to know about Sawant’s surprise upset victory in 2013. First, her narrow two-point election win over incumbent Richard Conlin (51 percent vs. 49 percent) came after she trailed Conlin in the Primary by 13 points. Second, Sawant’s propulsive victory was based in great part by an increased turnout of working-class voters, young voters, and renters. Even in District 3, which ultimately gave Sawant 58 percent of the vote, Sawant almost lost the primary to Conlin.  In fact, she won it by about seven votes – Sawant with 9,023 to Conlin’s 9,016.

Between the Primary and General, that means Sawant added 8,132 votes and Conlin added only 3,206. That is strategically significant. In most other races, candidates will be focusing on persuading regular voters to support them. In D3, Sawant has every reason to try to convert sporadic voters into Primary voters.  This demographic, disproportionately renters located on Cap Hill and in the Central District, is enough to counteract the wealthier, more regular voters in areas like Madison Park and Montlake.

Of course, Sawant’s opponents know this is the case. While they are hoping for a mediocre turnout on Capitol Hill, certainly, they will be advertising their progressive bona fides. This was the strategy employed by Ed Murray during his mayoral race. He succeeded in part because of his strong credentials on LGBT issues so managed to keep Mike McGinn’s General Election showing in D3 down to 51 percent. At the end of the day, though, 51 percent is still a passing grade in politics. Sawant’s opposition will need to make even greater inroads.  For a credible Primary showing, they’ll need to make a compelling case to these lower-turnout renters – one that either earns their vote, or gets them to sit out the election.

District 4: Single-family homeowners

I’ve previously characterized District 4, which centers on the University District and takes in a variety of mostly suburban communities, as “a swing district, and a very polarized one.” That could not be more evident than with this year’s candidates. Rob Johnson and Michael Maddux are outspoken urbanists. Tony Provine is a neighborhood activist with concerns about growth; likewise, sitting councilmember Jean Godden’s base tends to be suburban and risk-averse. Recent Evans School grad Abel Pacheco represents the District’s population of young, educated renters.

While renters are the easy majority in D4, they are a distinct minority in primary elections. That leaves high-turnout communities like Laurelhurst and Wedgwood with considerable power, especially in the Primary. Does this benefit growth-skeptical candidates like Provine and moderates like Godden?  Definitely. On the other hand, these communities aren’t really “anti-urbanist.” The 2014 Metro Transit vote received 68 percent in D4, its second-best performance citywide. Wallingford was more pro-transit than Downtown Seattle, and even Laurelhurst was nearly 60 percent in favor.  That suggests Johnson, Maddux, and Pacheco may have philosophical appeal, too.

That makes D4 a fascinating microcosm of a larger issue. With controversy over the proposed U-District upzone, and the recent HALA recommendations for zoning changes in single-family neighborhoods, there is a lot of talk about the tension between growth and preservation. D4 neighborhoods like Wallingford, Roosevelt and Ravenna are obvious flashpoints. It is clear that the D4 candidates have different philosophies on addressing the growth/preservation tension. Victory may depend on which candidate is able to best articulate their vision for the future of residential Seattle to open-minded but skeptical single-family homeowners.

District 5: Anti-establishment voters

Admittedly, I chose “anti-establishment voters” for D5 mostly for symmetry. But the truth is that this North End district is the hardest to pin down this year. It was the only district to begin the year without a sitting City Council member, and hasn’t had one for years. It attracted a slew of political newcomers and younger activists, a rather different profile than D1, which attracted several seasoned operatives. Despite that, D5 has actually seen a whopping $377,461 spent already, 24 percent more money than in D1.

A lot of that feverish spending is precisely because D5 is up for grabs. In D1, only two campaigns have prompted more than $10,000 in spending; in D5, that figure is six. In this free-for-all of relative unknowns, there has been a race to find an issue that builds momentum. In D5, gaining traction often is about taking on the establishment – a feeling that City Hall is not concerned about this end of town.

Besides the oft-cited lack of sidewalks issue, a number of political issues are at play.  One is that D5 voters are a bit skeptical of shelling out taxes. Tax votes for amenities like transportation and parks lag behind in D5 relative to its near-north neighbors, D4 and D6. This may reflect longstanding concerns about the far North End not receiving its fair share of city resources. Another concern is lopsided growth. Northgate is one of the few urban village areas that has seen relatively modest growth, and feelings about changes in Lake City are decidedly mixed. Elsewhere, a candidate recently described hearing concerns about infill growth overwhelming infrastructure in “nearly every conversation” with voters.

That’s a good bit of frustration with the establishment, however loosely defined.  The varied frustrations are probably a big part of why D5 so far lacks a breakout issue and has so many potentially viable candidates. As the field clears after the Primary, and campaigning generally shifts from a focus on biography to issues and contrasts, watch for candidates to position themselves relative to these North End-specific concerns. The bloc of voters concerned about them is formidable.

A final note

I did not analyze Districts 6 and 7, principally because they are relatively sleepy. However, even in those races, interesting blocs are forming – in District 6 (Ballard/Fremont), over land use issues and density, and in District 7 (Downtown to Magnolia) where tech workers are an increasingly powerful bloc, even if they don’t vote much.

Alone, no voting bloc – yes, not even the soccer mom – is enough to win these elections. However, with turnout looking unusually anemic, and votes divvied between up to nine candidates in some races, the ability to excite and mobilize these small blocs can mean survival in August. In November, it can mean victory.


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